Dorothy J. Vaughan's legacy was alive and shining at the dedication of the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg School's academy bearing her name. Students, staff, parents and community members celebrated the opening with 11 of Vaughn's family members and a former astronaut.
Vaughan began her career teaching math at a high school in Farmville, VA. She left that job to take what she believed would be a temporary war job at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. For nearly a decade, she led the segregated West Area computing unit at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). She became NACA's first African-American supervisor and one of its few female supervisors. NACA later became NASA.
Keynote speaker Joan Higginbotham, a former NASA astronaut, spoke about why Vaughan was important to her.
"I am one of three African-American females who have traveled to space, the first being Mae Jemison," she said. "I thought she was the trailblazer but it was really Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson who set the stage 49 years earlier for us."
Higginbotham showed a brief video from one of her missions. From liftoff to touchdown, she spent a total of 12 days, 20 hours and 45 minutes aboard the space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above the earth.
She thanked the Vaughan family and had a message for students.
"Aim high and dream big because the sky is no longer the limit. Dorothy looked past it and I've traveled beyond it."
Heather Vaughan said out of all the honors her grandmother has received, this is the one she would have appreciated the most.
"She began as a teacher, so having a school named after her feels like things are coming full circle," she said.
Vaughan's pioneering work was the subject of Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book Hidden Figures. A feature film of the same name was released in 2016 that chronicles the work and lives of African-American women at NASA in the 1960s.
Vaughan was one of the human computers — mathematicians who performed complex calculations for space travel — who supported the early days of aeronautics. She retired from NASA in 1971.
Dr. Maurice Cary said his grandmother was humble and did not like or seek attention. He said she would sometimes help him with his math homework.
"She never came home frustrated or angry," said Cary. "Now that I know the pressures she faced, I am even more amazed by her strength and level of character. I was blessed to be in her presence. She instilled in us the joy of knowing things for the simple pleasure of knowing."
He described her as someone who talked and walked quickly but always with a purpose.
"She was a person of action. She would often say, 'Stop talking so much and go do what you have to do'," said Cary. "She would let you know her opinion, too and, if you were smart, you would listen to her."
Vaughan was also a musician.
"My mother was an excellent pianist," said Ann Vaughan Hammond. "She was an active member of the AME Church and would often play there and in the community. She would say you couldn't have music without math."
The school's dedication program also included remarks from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education member Dr. Ruby Jones, District 3; Earnest Winston, Chief Community Relations & Engagement/Ombudsman Officer, and fifth-graders Pearson Brewer and Jasmyn Middleton.
In her closing remarks, Principal Toyia Matthews emphasized how Vaughan's contributions went hand in hand with the school's mission.
"Vaughan's leadership, innovation, creativity, curiosity and love of learning are the legacy we strive for at our new computer-science immersion magnet school," she said. "We want to exemplify her legacy to the students who will learn and develop here. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and district leaders understand technology skills are needed for the unknown jobs of the future and are dedicated to preparing our scholars."
The ceremony also featured student performances, a song by student teacher Elyse Mathis and a ribbon cutting followed by school tours.