- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - An Academy Award-nominated movie that impressed viewers across the nation inspired students at Brainerd High School last Monday, when they learned the film has a local connection.

Mary Winston Jackson, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the movie “Hidden Figures,” is the late great-aunt of two Chattanooga practicing doctors and a retired insurance man, André Boaz said.

“I want students to know the sky is the limit. If you have a will and a desire, you can make it happen, said Boaz, a retired insurance compliance manager. He and his family lived at 5330 Lee Ave. in Alton Park from 1956-1981.

Jackson is Boaz’s paternal great-aunt and the aunt of his two siblings - local gastroenterologist Dr. Lonnie Boaz III and his older sister, internist Dr. Valerie Boaz, who works at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.

Jackson, who died at age 83 in 2005, lived in Hampton, Va., but came to Chattanooga several times for weddings, funerals and family get-togethers.

More than 150 Brainerd High School students saw her story and the story of other black women who used their education to break color barriers in the 1950s and early 1960s.

At a time when blacks were treated separate and unequal and women were also denied equal access to employment opportunities, the women, who were mathematicians, served critical roles in NASA’s success.

Local donors rented a theater in the Carmike East Ridge 18 & IMAX so that the students could watch the movie.

The film served as the final event in the school’s Black History Month celebration, and it enabled students to see the impact of math and science, said Assistant Principal Jacqueline Cothran, who helped to organize the trip.

“We wanted them to see strong black people who had a great impact on NASA,” she said.

Todayja Bonner, 16, said she always knew black women were smart, but it was encouraging to see their portrayal in the movie.

“‘Hidden Figures’ gave me insight on how smart black women are and how we can do anything,” said Todayja, a Brainerd honor roll student who wants to be a veterinarian.

Andre Boaz explained to the students that Jackson wasn’t the only “hidden figure” in the Boaz family.

Aurellia Mitchell Boaz, his mother, also worked for NASA “as a human computer” from 1949 until 1956, when she left NASA to eventually live in Chattanooga with her husband, the late Dr. Lonnie Boaz Jr.

Andre Boaz said his aunt and mother often rode to work together.

Jackson started at NASA as a “human computer” in 1951, then called National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, but continued her education and work at NASA to become NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958. She retired in 1985.

Andre Boaz is from a line of doctors, college professors and mathematicians. He believes hard work and planning are key to their success.

His mother grew up on a tobacco farm. She developed her love for math by working at the family store. Items weren’t prepackaged then, so people would come and ask for a half pound of flour, and she had to know how to measure and then compute the cost.

His mother graduated high school at age 15. She started work at NASA at age 19 after marrying his father, Boaz said. Even then the two had a plan. They lived separately while his father completed medical school at Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C., and she worked at NASA in Hampton, Va.

They didn’t have their first child until she was 27. They wanted to get everything in order before having children, he said.

Andre Boaz said the family’s work ethic came from his father, the late Dr. Lonnie Boaz, who grew up with some of the financial struggles that came with being in a single-parent home. He was 5 years old when his father was killed in a hate crime in Alabama in the early 1930s. His younger brother was 2 weeks old. That left a single mom raising two small children alone. Eventually, the late Dr. Lonnie Boaz became old enough to contribute financially to sustain their family. He had a newspaper route, worked as a janitor and dug ditches to make ends meet before becoming a doctor.

Andre Boaz said that experience helped to instill in his father the importance of hard work and his father taught it to his children.

Brainerd Principal Uras Agee said he never knew how important black women were to NASA until he saw “Hidden Figures.” Jackson’s story and the story of the other women will not be forgotten, he said.

“They were smart in spite of all the obstacles,” Agee said. “That empowerment came off the screen to the kids.”


Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, https://www.timesfreepress.com

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