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Hope History Highlight: Hope’s very own ‘Hidden Figure’ Dorothy McFadden-Hoover

Photo of Dorothy McFadden-Hoover provided by Richard Sallee

In 2016, Margot Lee Shetterly published a book titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. That same year, a movie was released based on that same book which went on to be nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. The book and the film both told the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who were three black women working at NASA and serving as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

During this time period, very few black women were allowed to work at NASA, but Dorothy Vaughan was one of the first six to do so. What the movie fails to mention, and the book only briefly brings up, is that another one of the other first six women was another “Dorothy” who was born and raise right here in Hope, Arkansas. Her name is Dorothy McFadden-Hoover and she would go on to help invent something that 2.1 million people in the U.S. use everyday. She is Hope’s very own “Hidden Figure.”

Other than her briefly being mentioned in Shetterly’s novel, the name “Dorothy McFadden-Hoover” has largely been lost to history, especially to the residents here in Hope. It wasn’t until shortly after the “Hidden Figures” movie was released in theaters that three Hope alumni started making it their mission to bring her name back to light.

In 2017, Hope High School Class of 1968 graduate Richard Sallee made a trip to the movie theater to see “Hidden Figures” after his youngest daughter, a mathematics major in Dallas, recommended it to him.

“I was just pretty much blown away by the story that was presented in the movie,” Sallee said. “I was just like this is crazy information, I was so impressed.”

Sallee thought back to his time growing up in Hope in the early 60s where “No Colors” signs and segregation were the norm in the community.

“I was thinking ‘how did any African American people get to be a mathematician?'” He said. “After I saw the movie, I did something that I never do and I bought the book and it was a real page turner.”

While reading the book, Sallee noticed that the book mentioned that “Dorothy Hoover” was from Arkansas. This made him intrigued that he came from the same state as one of these women so he began to do some research and came to the realization that he not only came from the same state as one of these women, but also from the exact same town.

“I found an article from The Washington Post from 2000 about Dorothy that said that she was from the same hometown as Bill Clinton” he said. “I just thought ‘that can’t be right.'”

Sallee then got on Facebook and posted in the Hope Class of 1968 Facebook group asking if anyone had heard of a “Dorothy Hoover” from Hope. At first, no one responded to his post, that is until fellow Class of 1968 alumni Janice Russell remembered something from a few years back.

“10-15 years ago I went to a garage sale and one of the things I bought was an old sewing machine,” Russell said. “When I got home and start cleaning it out, there were two letters in the back of the drawer. One of them was hard to read because of water damage at the time, but we later found out that that was a letter from Dorothy’s uncle expressing condolences over the death of Dorothy’s older sister. But the other letter was a letter that Dorothy had written to her mother. I thought ‘The family needs to have this letter.’ My goal was to get the letter in the hands of the family as part of their family history, but I couldn’t find them.”

The letter, however, was written by a “Dorothy McFadden” and not a “Dorothy Hoover,” but that didn’t stop Russell from wondering if it could be the same person and sure enough, it was. From that moment on, Sallee, Russell and another 1968 alumni Ellen Turner, who became interested in the story because she is a life long science educator, started uncovering the life and career of Dorothy Esterine McFadden-Hoover.

Dorothy Esterine McFadden was born in Hope on July 1, 1918 and was the granddaughter of slaves. She was the youngest child of William McFadden and Elizabeth “Lizzie” McFadden. Her parents had three other children before Dorothy. Hazel, the first, died at just seven months old. Norvelle, the 2nd daughter, was born in 1913 and Phillip “Waldo,” the only son, was born two years later.

Dorothy grew up at a time segregation and racism towards black people were at an all time high and Jim Crow laws were the norm.

“The last public lynching in Hempstead County was when Dorothy was just five years ago,” Sallee said. “That’s what life was like for African-Americans in Hope during that time. It would be rare for her to even have a pair of shoes.”

In a sense, Dorothy was lucky from an education standpoint because it seems the love for learning was in her DNA. Her father was a graduate from Tuskegee University, a private, historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama, and from what Sallee, Russell, and Turner can find out, he was also a teacher at Yerger High School here in Hope.

Dorothy’s father, William Matthew McFadden

“The schools that Henry Yerger had in place during Dorothy’s childhood were just the right schools for her,” Turner said. “She got, I’m convinced, a strong academic foundation in Henry’s schools.”

While most people at the time, white and black, dropped out of school by the eighth grade, Dorothy fully graduated from Henry Clay Yerger High School in 1934 when she was just 15 years old. She then made her way to Pine Bluff where she attended The Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now known as University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“AM&N was established under a federal law that said that schools in the south had to either let African-American people come to their colleges or provide and equivalent college for them to go to,” Sallee said.

The three class of 1968 grads don’t actually know how Dorothy got from Hope to Pine Bluff because travel between those two towns were very difficult at the time, especially for black citizens.

“We guess her parents put her on a train in Hope, got to Little Rock and then caught a train to Pine Bluff,” Sallee said. “That was how we think people got from Hope to Pine Bluff back in the day because there just weren’t roads for that.”

Despite all odds, in 1938, at the age of 19, Dorothy graduated from AM&N with a BS in mathematics, being only one of two math majors in her graduating class of 135 students. The yearbook for AM&N described her as someone who “handles her words as tho she lives in the Webster Dictionary” and also mentioned that she was a member of the glee club.

Dorothy’s yearbook photo at AM&N

After graduating from AM&N, Dorothy went on to teach mathematics, english and science at Newport in Northwest Arkansas until 1939 when she decided to go across country to attend Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University, one of the first colleges in the country to award graduate degrees to black people. In 1943, Dorothy graduated with her first masters degree in mathematics.

During her time at Atlanta University, Dorothy met and married her first husband, Sylvanus Bowe Clarke, in Fort Valley, Georgia on June 16, 1942.

Shortly after graduating from Atlanta University in 1943, Langley Research at NASA, known at the time as National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), started hiring black women with a starting salary of $2,000 a year and Dorothy McFadden became one of the first six to be hired as a P-1 mathematician. It was here that aeronautical engineer Robert Thomas Jones personally selected Dorothy to be his personal mathematician in the stability analysis section of NACA.

During her time at NACA, Dorothy became one of the first Black women to co-author work at the institution, which was very rare at the time for women of any race. Along side researcher Frank S. Malvestuto, Dorothy published two articles in February and March of 1951 that discussed the invention of “thin sweptback tapered wings” on planes. These inventions helped develop America’s first fighter jet used in Korean War. Today, every single plane that flies at supersonic speed, including fighter planes, space shuttles and commercial jets, use the wings that Dorothy helped create. That means that, before COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 2.1 million in the U.S. alone flew on Dorothy’s wings daily.

Dorothy left Langley in 1953 after working a decade for the government organization. During that time Dorothy and Sylvanus had a daughter named Viola Clementine Clark, but the two ended up filing for divorce roughly a year after Viola was born. Dorothy then later met and married Richard Allen Hoover in York, Pennsylvania on June 20, 1950 and only a little over three months later, the two gave birth to their son Richardo Allen Hoover on Oct. 3, 1950 in Warwick, Virginia. However, on May 1952 Dorothy made her way back to Hope, Arkansas where she filed for divorce yet again with Richard, as stated in the Hope Star newspaper.

No one is really sure why Dorothy decided to come back to Arkansas in 1952, but both of her parents did end up passing away in 1949 and 1950, respectively, so it could be speculated that that was the reason. Whatever the reason may be, during Dorothy’s time back in Arkansas, she ended up attending the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville where she earned her 2nd masters degree this time in physics. Fayetteville at the time was still very segregated and she was only one of 15 black graduate students at the university at the time. She is also believed to have been the very first black woman to earn a master’s in physics at U of A and the second to earn two technical master’s degrees in the entire United States.

Dorothy then attended University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she went to get her Ph.D. in physics. There she was awarded the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and social welfare that’s fellowship was a grant awarded to those that showed special ability and “exceptional promise” who didn’t have the chance to develop their talents to their full potential due to barriers such as their race and where they’re from.

Dorothy didn’t complete the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, however, and left in 1956 due to unknown reasons. Dorothy moved to Washington D.C. where she began working for U.S. Weather Bureau for three years before transferring to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. At the Goddard Space Flight Center, Dorothy became the first black woman to be promoted to a GS-13, a massive position for the U.S. government that had a pay-grade of 11,000 a year, equivalent to $102,702 today. Despite making so much money, Dorothy rarely spent it and actually had a hobby of cutting out Walmart coupons.

Dorothy worked here for over a decade, but sometime after her son, Ricardo, was killed in a car accident on Nov. 26, 1967 near Vaiden, Mississippi at the age of 17 and her daughter, Viola, passing away two years later at the age of 22, she retired and lived out the rest of her life in D.C.

Dorothy passed away on Feb. 7, 2000 at the age of 81 due to complicates from congestive heart failure, something her church friends say she had been struggling with for sometime. At the time of her death, both of Dorothy’s parents, both her children, and both her siblings had all passed away and with her divorcing both her husbands, Dorothy had no known next of kin. Detailed in an article by the Washington Post, it was a difficult search to find someone to claim her body before it was given to the government, but at the last minute they found two of her nieces, daughters of her sister Norvelle, still living in Arkansas.

Copy of Dorothy’s funeral invitation

Dorothy’s funeral service was held nine days after her passing at her church, Campbell A.M.E Church, in D.C. This was very special since the church was a big part of Dorothy’s life. She even wrote a book in 1970 titled A Layman Looks with Love at Her Church that detailed the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the book, she reflected on her upbringing in the church and the impact it had on her life and family. She mentioned in the book that during her childhood, she attended Bethel A.M.E Church in Hope and that her family were active members in it. Her father serviced many positions in the church including being a member of the board of the stewards, the superintendent of the Sunday School and a delegate to the General Conferences. She also revealed in the book that her mother was the daughter of a minister, Boston Wilburn.

“A true Christian at heart, striving to live in precepts,” Dorothy wrote about her mother in her book.

A photo of Dorothy from her 1970 book A Layman Looks with Love at Her Church

Knowing this, Ellen Turner visited Dorothy’s church in D.C. where she met an older woman who actually knew Dorothy.

“She took me into the church and showed me where her pew was,” Turner said. “I told this woman, her name was Grace, ‘Grace, do you know what Dorothy did?’ and she was like ‘No.'”

Grace told Ellen that Dorothy was a very private person and only ever talked to people about church related topics like scripture and hymns and never talked about her work or personal life.

“They had no idea what she had done,” Turner said. “That has been the other big roadblock for us, she was an extremely private person and did not talk about her life. People knew her as a devout member of her church and they respected her and all of that, but they really didn’t know anything about her life. Think about it, they were doing all that ground breaking research at Langley. They couldn’t talk about it, it was top secret. Her life is pretty much cloaked in secrecy.”

Around the same time, Richard Sallee and Janice Russell visited the two nieces that were deemed her next of kin in Forest City, Arkansas. Here they also realized just how secretive Dorothy was.

“They knew nothing about who she was, she was just very secretive,” Russell said. “When they would tell us things she told them, they would mock her tone talking in this high pitched voice.”

Richard and Janice also found out during their visit that the nieces had thrown away all of Dorothy’s journals and work that they had inherited from her, losing any information that could’ve been found in them to history.

“They didn’t understand,” Russell said. “They absolutely didn’t understand what she was doing so all of that is lost.”

These lost materials leave so many questions for Russell, Janice and Ellen that remain to be answered.

“She was a rising star at Langley and then all of a sudden the next thing we know she has made the decision to come back to Arkansas,” Ellen pondered. “We’ve all speculated, what was it that made her leave?”

“Where did that yearning for education come from?” Ellen asked. “Her dad ended up at Tuskegee University and her brother was a professor. Now, Henry Clay Yerger could’ve instilled part of that in her, but that’s always an intriguing part to me. Who was it that lit that spark there and how was it lit?”

What we do know about Dorothy was that she was a devout Christian, an insanely smart individual, a member of Signa Pi Sigma (a physics honor society), a member of Phi Mu Epsilon (a mathematics honors society), a member of the NAACP, a pioneer in the field of aeronautical mathematics and research, a co-inventor of one of the most important inventions for modern flight, and someone that called Hope, Arkansas her home.

“When we think about who the smartest person to come out of Hope was, many people will say Bill Clinton,” Sallee said. “While he was a very intelligent man no doubt, I think that title should go to Dorothy. She should be a household name for all Hope citizens.”

Please send donations to the University of Arkansas Hope Foundation to help endow the Dorothy McFadden Hoover “Hidden Figure” Memorial Scholarship.

Make checks payable to the UAHT Foundation and mail to 2500 S. Main Street, Hope, AR 71801. You can contact the UAHT Foundation Office for further information at 870.722.8516 or email [email protected].

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