February 21, 2017 – On Feb. 26, Hollywood’s finest will gather at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to honor their own at the annual Academy Awards; one of the films up for the Best Picture Award is “Hidden Figures.”
“Hidden Figures” tells the story of three African-American women mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn – whose work in the early days of NASA in the 1960s was critical in advancing computer science, the space race, and civil rights movement.
But NASA wasn’t the only agency with “hidden figures”; African-American women mathematicians and contemporaries of the women portrayed in the film, were advancing Navy aeronautics and weapons development right here at Point Mugu throughout the 1960s, and their legacy continues today.
Gwendolyn Elliott Hunt, a mathematician with a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University, first worked for IBM in the 1950s before joining Pacific Missile Test Center in 1961. She worked her way up through the government system, and was featured in Ebony magazine’s “Speaking of People” column in November 1969. By then, Hunt was a systems analysis programming supervisor.
She was featured again in July 1971 in an article titled “New Careers for the New Woman.” Hunt noted that while African-American women in civil service might have an easier time getting promoted than in corporate America, there were certainly boundaries to being the “first” woman in any position or indeed in getting a foot in the door to begin with.
So she worked to help others break that boundary down.
Hunt retired in 1990, and throughout her career she advocated mentoring, equal opportunity, and self-improvement. She suffered from polio, but never let that be a barrier to her work, and traveled on college recruiting trips to help find and hire talent, regardless of their race or gender.
Ramona Franklin, a contracting office representative in NAWCWD’s Tactical Aircraft Electronic Warfare Integrated Product Team, met Hunt in 1982 during one such trip to Tennessee State University, Hunt’s alma mater. Franklin was completing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and looking for her first job.
“I’d never considered working for the military before I met Gwen,” Franklin said. “It just wasn’t on my radar. The only people I knew were actually in uniform. I didn’t even think about working as a civilian.”
For Franklin, who was looking for positions in California, Hunt’s approachability and passion for her work tipped the scales in the decision making process.
“She was just so easy to talk to,” Franklin said. “It was as if I was sitting in her office and already working. She made it real.”
Hunt offered Franklin a position on the spot, although not into Hunt’s F-14 program. Franklin went to public works, but Hunt offered to continue mentoring Franklin once she was settled.
“She was always there, but I did not take advantage of her offer,” Franklin said. “The way I grew up, you don’t bother someone who’s done you a good deed. You thank them, and then you move on and try to make them proud.
“I regret it to this day. I just didn’t understand the concept of mentors.”
Franklin turned that regret into a goal, and now actively mentors and coaches others.
One person who did NOT turn down Hunt’s offer was Le’Shune Clark, a mathematician with a bachelor’s degree from Claflin University. Looking for an opportunity west of the Mississippi River, Clark applied for positions in Alaska, California and Hawaii, and accepted a position at Point Mugu to begin in 1985.
On her first day of work, Clark met another of Point Mugu’s “hidden figures,” Ernestine Henderson Hernandez, a mathematician who’d come to Point Mugu in 1968 to work with the Naval Astronautics Group.
Hernandez, like Hunt, was featured in Ebony magazine’s “Speaking of People” column; her feature appeared in December 1990. At the time, she was a supervisory computer specialist, but Hernandez would be promoted to computing division head in 1992.
Turned out, Hernandez and Clark were sorority sisters. So was Hunt.
“That following Saturday I went to my first sorority meeting, and Gwendolyn Hunt was the president of our local chapter,” Clark said.
“When I got here, I didn’t have any place to stay. I found a room June 1, then the lady who owned the house told me June 28 she was selling,” Clark said. Hunt offered to let Clark stay with her.
“For two and a half years, that’s where I stayed. She was a mother, a sister … we were family. In her obituary, I was mentioned as one of her daughters. She was awesome.”
Hunt pushed Clark to never settle, and always reach for something better, sharing with Clark the struggles she went through breaking gender and color barriers.
“She had to fight for her positions, even when she knew she was the right person for the job, being an African-American and a woman pushed her to the side. She just wouldn’t let that happen. It just made her work even harder.”
And Hunt challenged Clark and her other mentees to be an example for other African-Americans and women.
“She told me ‘I can’t change you, and you can’t change me, but together we can change the world,’” Clark said.
Today, NAWCWD honors those whose personal development, academic achievement, career advancement and mission accomplishment make them strong leaders and positive role models in the command with the Gwendolyn Elliott Hunt Memorial Award.
Both Franklin and Clark, who each earned master’s degrees while working at Point Mugu, have each earned the honor, continuing Hunt’s legacy as a leader and mentor.
“I tell my son,” Clark said, “that you have to look and see and understand the shoulders that carried you to where you are today.” For Clark, Franklin, and many others still pushing NAWCWD’s mission forward today, Hunt’s shoulders were the strongest.