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  • Race and Computing: The Problem of Sources, the Potential of Prosopography, and the Lesson of Ebony Magazine
  • R. Arvid Nelsen (bio)

Historians recognize the need to examine race and technology, but published scholarship has not kept pace. This has been attributed to the absence of archival source materials. In response, scholars have approached “race” from a broad definition, rather than having sought to place persons of color who contributed to the development and innovative application of computing into the historical record. It remains critical to do so. Archives and libraries should undertake to identify and collect materials from persons of color. Meanwhile, scholars may find material in nontraditional sources, and prosopography may prove useful for examining computer professionals of color. At least 57 African Americans working in computing fields between 1959 and 1996 are listed in Ebony magazine. If computing has had little to say about persons of color, it may be better to examine what communities of color have had to say about computing.

Over the past few decades, historians have increasingly recognized the need to examine the intersection of race and technology. Although recognition of this need has grown, scholarship itself has not kept pace, especially compared with the relative success found in explorations of gender. This situation is possibly even more acute specifically in the history of computing. The lack of scholarship on race and technology has been attributed, at least in part, to the lack of source materials available in archives, the conventional source for historians working in the field. This has prompted scholars to consider analyzing race from a broad perspective that examines the role of “whiteness” in shaping technology and the industry, rather than attempting to insert persons of color into a history that has predominantly focused on the accomplishments of white men.1 While alternative methodological approaches to studying race in computing are promising and important, including those that specifically engage the previously normalized and thus invisible and unquestioned role of characteristics of dominant groups (whiteness), as suggested by approaches to gender (masculinity), it nevertheless remains critical to place into the historical record those women and men of color who contributed to the development and innovative application of computing technologies as they have been traditionally framed. Foremost this is because without them we do not, in fact, have an accurate picture of the history of this technology. Second, they deserve the recognition. Third, demonstrating the presence and activity of actual people would go a long way toward providing support for the arguments posed by scholars in numerous fields and correcting the misimpressions held by the industry and the general public alike regarding interest and aptitude among communities of color.

The lack of source material on race and computing in traditional archival collections needs to be faced. Archives and libraries dedicated to preserving source materials should undertake proactive efforts to identify and collect materials from persons of color and organizations employing and/or serving [End Page 29] these communities. In the short term, scholars may find important and possibly overlooked material in sources not typically considered by the historian of computing. By engaging in an examination of popular publications by, about, and for African Americans, I was able to discover numerous, albeit brief, biographical synopses of women and men working in computing fields dating from the late 1950s. One such profile, from January 1971, reads:

“Space Center’s Section Head: Mrs. Melba L. C. Roy is program production section chief at Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., one of nine research installations of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She heads a team of mathematicians who design large-scale computer programs aimed at determining the orbits of spacecraft launched at Cape Kennedy, Fla. One of the few ranking women with NASA, Mrs. Roy got the post in 1961 after two years as mathematician. She is a 1950 graduate of Howard U., where she later earned her degree”2 (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1.

Melba C. Roy, Ebony, vol. 20, no. 7, May 1965, p. 6.

At least 57 African American professionals engaged with computers and computing between 1959 and 1996 can be found in the column...


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