Elayne Arrington says she knew she excelled in mathematics when she showed up a classmate in a high school geometry class.
After the group she was working in couldn’t figure out a problem, she spent most of the night trying to solve it. The next day, she shyly told her teacher she knew the answer.
“He never smiled, but I could just see the smile forming on his face,” she said.
A classmate pointed out that she could have finished the problem in fewer steps.
“I felt devastated because he was right. I could have done it in two steps. But Mr. Connelly looked at him and said ‘after she's carried you across the river you say put me down I can swim,’” she said. “I realized then that … I would never let somebody just stop me from thinking and solving a problem. There's always another way to look at it.”
In 1957 she graduated first in her class of Homestead High School, now Steel Valley, with the second highest math SAT score in the country. She went on to be the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh’s school of engineering and was the 17th African-American woman in the country to receive a doctorate in mathematics.
Arrington’s story as an aerospace engineer during the height of the space race is similar to the stories told in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.” The movie portrays the struggles and achievements of three African-American women working for NASA as mathematicians in 1961.
She introduced the movie to a crowd at the Carnegie Science Center this week as part of the museum’s Science on Screen series. She handed out copies of a letter-to-the-editor published in the Post-Gazette shortly after the film was released written by the former vice chancellor of Pitt. He called her the ‘Hidden Figure’ of Pittsburgh.
While at Pitt, she only encountered one female instructor. She had a scholarship revoked because, as she was told, “girls don’t finish engineering (school).”
“I was able to succeed academically with the curriculum, but all I could do was adapt to the culture. It was a culture that often made me feel isolated and ignored in my engineering courses. I had no one to work with and no one to talk to. I guess it's called marginalization and that, above all things, was what I sincerely hope that no one after me would have to experience,” she said.
Arrington worked as an aerospace engineer in the Foreign Technology Division at an air force base in Dayton, Ohio during the height of the space race. She was tasked with determining why Soviet aircraft were outperforming the U.S.’s.
Her team worked in a vault. Many assignments were secret with a few top-secret designations. There, she said she never felt discriminated against. It wasn’t until she returned to Pitt to teach that she was referred to as “girl” and was once asked to clean up spilled coffee by two white men who said “good, the maid is here.”
“Racial discrimination was probably not illegal, but it was at least socially unnaceptable. Whereas gender bashing, was not,” she said.
She taught mathematics at Pitt for more than 40 years. During that time, the demographics of the male-dominated STEM fields didn’t change as much as she had hoped.
“I'm interested in seeing how this 'Generation Z' turns out, how the culture developed them. Hopefully I'll be here to see it,” she said.