When Yvonne Y. Clark, also known as Y.Y., started college at Howard University as a mechanical engineering student, there were three things she swore she’d never do: marry a tall man, become a teacher and work for the government. But love and life had other plans. Y.Y. quickly encountered the difficulty of entering industry as one of the few Black women in her field but found employment at RCA Victor and Frankford Arsenal. She later moved back to the South, where Brown v. Board of Education had recently integrated public schools, prompting a violent backlash.
[Are you new to this season of the podcast? Listen to Episode One here first.]
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Episode 2: The Three Nevers: An Engineer Breaks Her Own Rules
YVONNE CLARK: Mom had a friend. He had an airplane. And he let me take over the controls once he took off, and mom was on the passenger seat in the back. It was nice…it made me want to fly.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis…
KATIE HAFNER: …and I’m Katie Hafner. This is Season 3 of Lost Women of Science, “The First Lady of Engineering.”
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This season, we’re talking about the mechanical engineer Y.Y. Clark.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. never did become a pilot, but in this episode, she’ll discover the work that eventually became her life: mechanical engineering. And, in a way, her journey was a kind of flight…
MILTON CLARK: Mom did a paper that has the title, “Six Degrees of Freedom.”
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Milton Clark, Y.Y.’s son. “Six Degrees of Freedom” is a term used by engineers, and it’s also the title of the book he’s writing about his mother.
MILTON CLARK: The “Six Degrees of Freedom” title has to do with the ability of an object to move in free space. So if you think about an airplane…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It can move in three dimensions, or what an engineer would call…
MILTON CLARK: …three axes, X, Y and Z.
KATIE HAFNER: You can move it left or right, front or back, and up or down.
MILTON CLARK: And the technical terms are roll pitch and yaw.
KATIE HAFNER: Along each axis you can move in two directions: forwards or backwards.
MILTON CLARK: Three times two is six. So that’s where the six degrees of freedom come from.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So an object can move with some freedom, some choice, but always within the limitations of the axes.
MILTON CLARK: And in mom’s case with her life and those challenges she, she had, she had to roll pitch and yaw to get through some of those challenges.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In the last episode, we saw Y.Y. and her family do just that. She was admitted to the University of Louisville, but barred from enrollment because she was Black.
KATIE HAFNER: But after some negotiating by Y.Y.’s mother, the University of Louisville agreed to cover Y.Y.’s tuition at Howard University.
And that’s where Y.Y. started school in 1947. She decided to major in mechanical engineering.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Remember, Y.Y. wanted to be a pilot, and the pilots she knew had all studied engineering. So this was a track that made a lot of sense for her.
KATIE HAFNER: Carol, can we get a quick explainer on what exactly mechanical engineering is? What was she going to be studying?
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I talked to Y.Y.’s former student, Dr. S. Keith Hargrove, who, like Y.Y., majored in mechanical engineering. He defines engineering in general as:
S. KEITH HARGROVE: …the use of math and science to design and build things with available resources for the betterment of mankind…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Now, within that, there are different disciplines. Civil engineers work with buildings and infrastructure. Electrical engineers design circuitry and electrical equipment…
S. KEITH HARGROVE: …but mechanical engineering is focused on that they design and operation of machines.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: For Y.Y., this was a perfect fit. She’d been fixing appliances since she was a little girl – the broken toaster, the family’s furnace. And at Howard, as a mechanical engineering student, she got to work in the manufacturing lab.
In one class, they were casting metal parts, and Y.Y. was put on a sanding assignment.
KATIE HAFNER: A sanding assignment?
YVONNE CLARK: …meaning I had to shovel the sand to make the molds to pour the metal in.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Y.Y. from a StoryCorps interview she did in 2007. Her decision to pursue mechanical engineering meant she could expect to work with heavy machinery. In the manufacturing lab, that meant physical labor. But Y.Y. made it work.
YVONNE CLARK: I didn’t pick up a whole shovel of sand. I picked up enough that I could handle and not be sore when I finished class.
KATIE HAFNER: In her classes, more often than not, Y.Y. was the only woman. There were women in other engineering disciplines, but Y.Y. was the only woman in the mechanical engineering program. She thought it was because chemical and electrical engineering didn’t have the “stigma” that mechanical engineering had. Mechanical engineers often worked directly with machines, meaning they’d be dealing with grease and fumes and smoke from engines. They were seen as doing grittier, less refined work than their counterparts in other engineering fields. But as Y.Y. put it,
YVONNE CLARK: everything that you use a machine made, and we as mechanical engineers design the machine to get what you all want designed.
KATIE HAFNER: Which means mechanical engineers were crucial to any engineering project.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When she was at Howard, Y.Y. was a serious, super focused student. But she did find time for extracurricular activity. During freshman year, her roommate was trying out for the cheerleading team…
YVONNE CLARK: So I said, okay, I’ll go with you.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Even though she’d never been on a cheerleading team, Y.Y. headed to the try-outs and…
YVONNE CLARK: I made the cheering squad and I never cheered in front of anybody in my life.
KATIE HAFNER: I love that image.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Okay, I really do too… the mechanical engineer running a pep rally. She actually became the captain of the cheerleading squad. Her nickname on the team was “Little Colonel” … because she was a bit of a drill sergeant.
YVONNE CLARK: Cheerleading was my release, but naturally I did have to study.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. liked having structure. Whether it was choreographing a routine on the football field or designing a machine according to the laws of physics, she liked knowing what the rules were.
KATIE HAFNER: According to Milton’s biography, in college, Y.Y. even came up with rules for…happiness. She told herself that in order to live a happy life, there were three things she would never do…
Here are “The Three Nevers”. Number one: Never marry a tall man. Y.Y. called this a matter of “Simple physics;” She was, quote, “vertically challenged.”
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …meaning, she was short…
KATIE HAFNER: …and she wanted to be able to look her “life partner eye to eye.”
Number two: Never become a teacher. A teacher’s salary wouldn’t be enough to buy a house and raise kids – things that she hoped to do in the near future.
And number three: Never work for the government. In Y.Y.’s words: “Government projects just seemed like they were more trouble than they were worth to me.”
So these were the Three Nevers.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Ok so, no tall man, no teaching, no government work…We’re about to see Y.Y. become a bit of a renegade. She’s going to break all her own rules.
KATIE HAFNER: I know. Let’s go one by one, starting with never marry a tall man…
MILTON CLARK: Mom and dad had fun together.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Milton again, Y.Y.’s son.
MILTON CLARK: They both loved big band. They both were huge Basie fans, Count Basie fans.
KATIE HAFNER: That might be because their very first dance was to a Count Basie tune. It was 1949, Y.Y.’s junior year.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: As a cheerleader, Y.Y. went to all of Howard’s away games with the football team.
KATIE HAFNER: And one of those games was at Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville. Y.Y. had some family there, from her dad’s side, and a cousin took her out to a party after the game. And that is where she met Bill Clark.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: He came over and offered her some punch. And the first thing she noticed? How tall he was. Six foot four to her five foot three. Ok wait a minute, though, five foot three, that’s not that short, but I guess when you stand next to someone who’s six foot four, it seems pretty short.
KATIE HAFNER: Right, and they’re not going to spend the rest of their lives sitting down so they can look each other in the eye.
According to her Three Nevers, Bill’s height was a deal breaker. But they got to talking…and dancing…and they hit it off. Bill was studying medicine and biochemistry. When Y.Y. told him that her major was mechanical engineering, she was ready for the usual disbelief.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But, Bill said “That’s a bold choice. I’m sure you’ll do well.”
From that first exchange, Bill made it clear that Y.Y. had his support. And it won her over – they started dating long distance. Y.Y. would head to Nashville on weekends and holiday breaks.
MILTON CLARK: They were a power couple in that they knew each other’s strengths. They relied on each other. Those strengths enhanced the dynamic between the two of them.
Milton thinks part of what shaped how Bill and Y.Y. related was Bill’s upbringing. On the one hand, Bill’s father did not approve of Y.Y..
MILTON CLARK: Dr. Clark was not pleased with dad’s choice at all. He did not think that a woman should have a career like mom and made no bones about it.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In fact, Bill’s parents divorced shortly after he was born, in part because his mother wanted to continue her career. She was a licensed psychologist.
MILTON CLARK: Ultimately, dad’s mom ended up being dean of women at Texas Southern University.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Bill had grown up with a mother who had a career, and he had a wonderful relationship with her.
MILTON CLARK: That really, I think, sets the stage for how he treated mom. The fact that dad respected mom and what she was doing was huge.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. continued to visit Bill as often as she could. But when school was in session, she was studying – a lot.
KATIE HAFNER: Don’t forget, she’d originally intended to become a pilot – engineering was just a means to an end.. But now, as she neared the end of her undergrad years, she decided to make mechanical engineering her career.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When Y.Y. was a senior, she went to the registrar’s office to get a copy of her transcript, and an administrator told her that in graduating, she would become the…
YVONNE CLARK: …first female in the history of the Howard University to finish mechanical engineering.
KATIE HAFNER: She knew she was the only woman in her class, but ever? This was news to Y.Y., and she was proud of it. You would think that the university would celebrate, too.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: You would think so, but Y.Y.’s daughter Carol Lawson told me that in 1951, when Y.Y. was getting ready to walk in commencement with the rest of her class, she was called into the Dean of Engineering’s office. Some faculty were waiting for her, looking grim and serious. And they told her…
CAROL LAWSON: She can’t walk because she’s a female.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Carol. She says the Dean of Engineering at Howard told her mother she wouldn’t be able to participate in the graduation ceremonies.
CAROL LAWSON: And so she had to take her degree in the president’s office.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Milton says the same thing in Six Degrees of Freedom. But was there any concrete evidence of this? Could any documents confirm that Y.Y. was indeed denied the privilege of celebrating with her classmates at the commencement ceremony because of her gender?
KATIE HAFNER: At Lost Women of Science, we look for primary sources – correspondence, journal entries, drafts of papers, interview transcripts – all are key. They’re our main sustenance. We spend a lot of time looking for these materials, not only because we want to get things right, but because we think part of our mission is to safeguard the papers that document a life, and to share these stories so they become part of our collective history. But the stories we tell are always limited by what we can find.
In telling Y.Y.’s story, we’ve had a lot of luck finding Y.Y.’s family members and friends and colleagues, but very little luck finding primary source documentation. And while we’ve gotten to hear from Y.Y. herself, we don’t have many of her personal papers.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So we went digging to find out what we could about Y.Y.’s graduation. There’s no doubt that she graduated: we’ve seen her diploma. Plus, there are several photos of her in the 1951 Howard University yearbook, and she’s listed in that year’s senior class directory. Howard certainly celebrated her achievement: Sonja Woods, the University Archivist at Howard, sent us the 1951-1952 annual report from the school of engineering and architecture, which calls her “our first woman graduate in mechanical engineering.”
But we could not find any record of Howard refusing to let her walk with her class because of her gender. And without primary source documentation (and that could be letters exchanged between Howard and the Youngs, or a list of graduates who did walk) some questions remain around the details of Y.Y.’s graduation.
What we do know is that Howard did recognize and document her achievement. And ten years later, in 1962, she was profiled in the alumni magazine.
And what strikes us is that in some ways, this means Y.Y.’s story has been told. But if her children, students, and colleagues weren’t sharing her story with us today, it might remain known to only a select few.
KATIE HAFNER Starting in 1951, Y.Y. set off on her job hunt. Here she is talking about her interview for an engineering job with a US Navy recruiter:
YVONNE CLARK: He looked at me and said, I don’t think I can hire you. I said, okay, what’s the problem now? He said, you are female.
KATIE HAFNER: He told her that women were considered bad luck on board a ship. But listen to how Y.Y. responded:
YVONNE CLARK: I said, okay, I tell you what, I’ll go on to my next interview and you can finish your paperwork and this can be a plus.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y.’s daughter Carol says that in another interview, the recruiter told her:
CAROL LAWSON: We lift things here and, you know, women just can’t lift that type of stuff.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y.’s response to this was so typical, so engineer-y. She said:
YVONNE CLARK: You give me a long enough lever and I can take down anything.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. didn’t get that job either. But she always seems so undaunted by the rejection. She followed a simple but powerful philosophy:
MILTON CLARK: You don’t carry other people’s baggage.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Milton again.
MILTON CLARK: And so not being able to get the job that she was going for, she put on them, not on her, you know, they’re missing out on my talent. They’re the ones who’ve decided they don’t want me. Fine
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: After two months of interviews, in March of 1952…
YVONNE CLARK: I got a job with Frankford Arsenal Gauge Lab and I was headed for Philadelphia.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Once again, Y.Y. was a “first” – according to Six Degrees of Freedom, she was the first African American and the first woman hired there.
Frankford Arsenal was a US Army ammunition plant. It’s now defunct, but at the time Y.Y. joined, it was focused on designing new weapons. Milton told me…
MILTON CLARK: When she was working at Frankford arsenal, they had the issue with the cannon.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: They were having trouble with a cannon that would jam up in cold weather.
MILTON CLARK: They had had several teams try to fix that thing. And they had all failed and mom comes along with her different way of looking at stuff and solved the problem.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In this case, it was quite literally a different way of looking. Y.Y. took the plans for the cannon and blew them up to four times their original size.
KATIE HAFNER: This was long before you could just zoom in with a click or a cursor. It meant painstakingly replicating, grid by grid, the portion of the plan that showed the cannon’s firing mechanism.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And it paid off. With the magnified plans, Y.Y. was able to see that two pieces of metal in the mechanism were overlapping, causing the jam.
Y.Y.’s problem-solving approach was stunning in its simplicity. She figured: if everyone else is having trouble fixing the thing, they must be looking at it wrong.
KATIE HAFNER: Wow. I love that. It’s such an insight, right?
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yeah. Absolutely.
KATIE HAFNER: So in an interview later, Y.Y. said that many of the male engineers she worked with resisted working at the drawing board. She said they were afraid of being seen as mere draftsmen – and that would be too degrading. But Y.Y. understood how important it was to take a step back and see clearly before forging ahead.
MILTON CLARK: That, based on my research, set her reputation as being a troubleshooter.
KATIE HAFNER: You know, let me just pause for a second and say, the very idea, the very concept of a troubleshooter sort of implies that you think differently. So what she did is she solved these problems by looking at things differently, and at Frankford Arsenal she proved herself again and again.
YVONNE CLARK: somebody found out that as an engineer, I was making more than the guys who came up through the ranks. So they got kind of upset, this female making more money than I am, and she just out of college, not even dry behind the ears.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The management told her she could no longer earn overtime. They wanted to make sure she wasn’t making too much money because it would upset her male coworkers.
KATIE HAFNER: And when she applied for a raise after she’d passed the probationary period, they told her she’d have to wait – the men took priority.
YVONNE CLARK: So I went looking for another job.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Looking for a different job was one thing; it was another thing altogether to find one. And after weeks of searching, Y.Y. voiced her frustration to Bill.
KATIE HAFNER: Bill said, you’re trying to get a seat at a table in a men’s only club and you need to get through the door first.
MILTON CLARK: Dad was the one who suggested that she go by her initials. Rather than it being Yvonne, make it Y.
KATIE HAFNER: The gender ambiguous initials seemed to work. In the fall of 1952, Y.Y. was called for an interview at RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, which had an Engineering Products Department that was headquartered in New Jersey. A few weeks after that interview…
YVONNE CLARK: I got a telegram, “can you report XYZ?” I said, “Yes I can report,” gave my two weeks notice and I was on RCA’s payroll.
KATIE HAFNER: Six Degrees of Freedom says Y.Y. was the first Black female engineer hired at RCA.
YVONNE CLARK: I was the only one, whatever the subject was.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. was getting pretty used to being the first, or the only, wherever she was. And she was starting to get recognized for it.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: RCA published a newsletter about Y.Y. in 1954 that her daughter Carol showed me. The headline is “Lady Mechanical Engineer,” and the copy reads “the attractive girl…
CAROL LAWSON: …worked her way up to a full fledged engineer in less than two years. And is now designing electrical equipment for RCA-Victor, having been the only woman in the Howard engineering class of 300. Miss Young is perfectly at home working with the 18 men in her department. Ms. Young is the only Negro member of the American Society of Women Engineers.”
I know. I know. What do you do?
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In many ways, Y.Y. was doing really well at RCA – she was lead engineer on several projects. But navigating this work and world meant facing a steady stream of patronizing remarks and animosity from colleagues. There were hushed conversations around the water cooler, snarky comments, and PR that focused on how attractive she was.
It would have been understandable to feel defeated or enraged. But above all, Y.Y. was resilient. She just kept things moving.
KATIE HAFNER: Coming up, just as Y.Y. is getting her bearings at RCA…she chooses to follow her heart.
MILTON CLARK: This is a main drag for, um, north Nashville.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m in Nashville, Tennessee, with Milton. He’s showing me the house his parents bought back in 1955.
MILTON CLARK: See this house down here and all of these here? This is what lined the whole street.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It’s pretty unassuming – one story, red brick, set on a road with a stretch of houses that look just like it.
MILTON CLARK: I haven’t been in the house since it’s been sold. But I was in there for so long, I could tell you where the, every knot in the hardwood floor is.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This is where Milton and his sister Carol grew up, about a mile from Tennessee State University, where their mom worked.
Y.Y. and Bill bought the house when they got engaged. As Y.Y. tells it, Bill asked…
YVONNE CLARK: How about a diamond ring? I said my mom and dad gave me, for my 18th birthday, a diamond. So, let’s get a house together.
KATIE HAFNER: So instead of ring shopping, Bill and Y.Y. went house hunting.
The problem was, at this point, Y.Y. was still working at RCA in New Jersey, and Bill was in Nashville. He’d finished his biochemistry degree and started teaching at Meharry Medical College.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. had to make a choice: stay up north, where she had finally broken into industry, or move back down south, where career prospects were uncertain, in order to build a life with Bill.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. decided to move to Nashville. In an interview she gave years later, she said, “If I hadn’t married that rascal I probably wouldn’t be there now.” Since she was still in New Jersey, she told Bill to pick out two houses he liked in Nashville…
YVONNE CLARK: You’re going to pick the two, therefore you are satisfied. When I choose one of your two, we are satisfied.
KATIE HAFNER: And that’s how they found the house they lived in for more than forty years.
Y.Y. married Bill in December of 1955. It was a big celebration in her hometown, Louisville. News photographers covered the event.
Now, all Y.Y. had to do was find work in Nashville.
YVONNE CLARK: Since I was still in industry, I went by the Ford glass plant.
KATIE HAFNER: The Ford Motor Company had plans to open a large glass plant in Nashville, and Y.Y. knew it needed engineers. She told her daughter Carol…
YVONNE CLARK: So I go by to see if I can get a job, and they told me, we have no use for you.
CAROL LAWSON: Why did they say that?
YVONNE CLARK: A black female down south.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. was back in the segregated South. She had faced significant racism and sexism in New Jersey, but the South was another level altogether. This was the fifties – the South was just barely beginning to end legal segregation. The Supreme Court made its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that outlawed segregation in public schools, in 1954, just a year before Y.Y. moved to Nashville.
It was met with a furious backlash…
ARCHIVAL TAPE: 2, 4, 6, 8 we don’t want to integrate
JOHN CASPER (archival tape): We in the white citizens council say now, yesterday, today and forever, the Supreme Court is not the law of the land.
JOHN CASPER (archival tape): I say integration can be reversed. It can be stopped anywhere.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. had grown up in an affluent, supportive Black community in the South, an enclave in a racist world. But now, with the backlash, things were different. And as much as Brown v. Board of Education had been a civil rights breakthrough, private employers in Nashville and the rest of the south had no obligation to integrate.
YVONNE CLARK: So I went down the road a little ways to Tennessee State University…
KATIE HAFNER: …in spite of her second never: never become a teacher.
With few options in industry, Y.Y. applied for a job, teaching in Tennessee State’s mechanical engineering department. Tennessee State, or TSU, is a historically Black university in Nashville.
Y.Y. would be working with and for the Black community. And she said she broke another record by getting the job…
YVONNE CLARK: I was the first female engineer hired at TSU.
KATIE HAFNER: This was 1956.
YVONNE CLARK: the engineering building had two females, the dean’s secretary and myself.
KATIE HAFNER: We found the yearbook from Y.Y.’s first year teaching. On page 82, there’s a photograph of the engineering department. It’s a grainy scan, but we could just make out Y.Y., the only woman, standing in the first row.
MILTON CLARK: When mom came to the school, there was not a women’s bathroom in the engineering building.
KATIE HAFNER: The engineering building was practically new, built only about five years earlier. But the architects had not anticipated that women would be working in the building at all.
MILTON CLARK: And so she and the secretary would basically watch out for each other. You know, when they needed to go to the bathroom
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y.’s first year of teaching was a busy one, and on top of that, she experienced a personal first: later that year her son, Milton, who you’ve been hearing, was born.
Although she had left industry at this point, Y.Y. made sure to stay connected with people in her field. She was a member of the Society of Women Engineers–or SWE.
YVONNE CLARK: I joined after I finished college in 1952.
KATIE HAFNER: SWE had just formed two years earlier, and its mission was to advocate for female engineers.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In her application, Y.Y. included a headshot so that SWE knew she was a Black woman and wasn’t “blindsided” by her race. She got a call from the SWE president a week later – she was in.
YVONNE CLARK: I integrated the society of women engineers.
Y.Y. was the first African American to join. She later said, “I had found a home among peers.”
YVONNE CLARK: I’ve been active in SWE really ever since I joined, but I would try to always get to convention.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Y.Y. again. In 2001, when she was in her early 70s, she and a few other SWE members got together to reminisce about their careers.
One story really stood out. SWE held an annual convention for its members…
YVONNE CLARK: In 58, was it 58, or 57…
KATIE HAFNER: (It was 57.)
YVONNE CLARK: …the convention met in Houston, Texas.
KATIE HAFNER: SWE held its national conference at a hotel in Houston. Y.Y. remembers arriving and walking up to the front desk…
YVONNE CLARK: And I said, I’m here to attend the women engineers’ convention, and found out that they wouldn’t let me stay there.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The hotel had been told that SWE was an integrated organization. But it turned out the manager of the hotel thought it was just a joke. He said, “who ever heard of a colored female engineer.”
But now that very engineer was standing right in front of him – and as usual, she was prepared.
YVONNE CLARK: I got everything I was supposed to have – reservations and everything. And I said, “Here’s my reservation for your hotel with guarantee.” And the man reached for my – I said, “No, no, no. This is mine, you find yours.”
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. held on tightly to her confirmation – proof that she’d booked a room.
But to no avail: the hotel wouldn’t let her check in. They even tried to prevent her from attending the conference at all.
PATSY CHAPPELEAR: The kids today just really can’t imagine people acting like that.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Patsy Chappelear was one of the organizers of that 1957 SWE convention. She lived in Houston – and still does. She remembers what it was like in 1957.
PATSY CHAPPELEAR: I grew up in a segregated state, in a segregated society. It is so hard to explain to somebody today who wasn’t alive back then, what the society was like.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When the SWE members heard that Y.Y. was being told to leave…
YVONNE CLARK: They wanted to pull the convention out of the hotel.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And not only that: SWE’s president threatened to sue the hotel and tell every newspaper about the incident.
YVONNE CLARK: And I said, no, no, no, no, it takes time to get a convention, national convention moving smoothly. And I wouldn’t let them pull it, not on my account.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. appreciated that SWE would go to bat for her.
PATSY CHAPPELEAR: She was very polite and, you know, didn’t want to cause a problem. But we were very determined that she came to town to go to the convention that she was going to go to the convention. So we did it.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: They considered booking her a room somewhere else.
YVONNE CLARK: They sent me over to the hotel, recommended segregated hotel.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But remember: this is in Houston, where Y.Y.’s family, the Houstons, had so much history…
YVONNE CLARK: And that’s when I called my aunt. I said, I’m here, but don’t have a place to stay right now. She said, okay, I’ll come get you.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: SWE and Y.Y. worked out a deal with the hotel: Y.Y. would be able to attend the conference, and would be refunded the cost of her room. But she would stay with her aunt and uncle.
PATSY CHAPPELEAR: They would drive her to the convention in the morning and we would meet her there, you know, eight o’clock or so.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Still, the hotel insisted that while Y.Y. was there, she had to be, quote, “chaperoned.”
YVONNE CLARK: I had to be accompanied at all times, from the front door back to the front door.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: They wanted to make it clear that this Black woman on the premises was not staying at the hotel.
PATSY CHAPPELEAR: She had to be escorted every place, to the restroom. She could not be left alone while we were on the convention floor. And it, it did upset everybody.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But Y.Y. had a different take on that experience. As she told her colleagues from SWE in 2001…
YVONNE CLARK: We had a ball. Anytime anybody wanted some cigarettes, they came and found me and we walked. So I’ve been to the newsstand and coffeeshop. We went everywhere that, that one week. We had a ball.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y. made her presence as known as possible. She delighted in exposing the absurdity of the hotel’s racist demand. It’s a perfect example of how Y.Y. dealt with the discrimination she faced. As she put it:
YVONNE CLARK: If you roll with the punches and don’t wear other people’s problems you can, you can make it with a smile, but when you start worrying about other people and their problems it’s just, it hurts you.
KATIE HAFNER: After the 1957 conference, the SWE executive committee made a statement that SWE wouldn’t hold conventions in the Southern United States until the Civil Rights Act was passed.
YVONNE CLARK: The organization didn’t go south until all the members were protected.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In 1997, SWE finally returned to Houston. This time, Y.Y. received a plaque, a key to the city, and an apology for her treatment in 1957. And she was honored as SWE’s Distinguished Engineering Educator.
KATIE HAFNER: Next time on Lost Women of Science, Y.Y. breaks her third never – never work for the government.
MILTON CLARK: the government was always looking for the best and brightest. Mom had proven herself to be one of that crew.
YVONNE CLARK: My assignment was to help design the box that brings the samples – the rocks – back from the moon.
KATIE HAFNER: This has been Lost Women of Science. Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including our co-executive producer Amy Scharf, producer Ashraya Gupta, senior editor Nora Mathison, associate producer Sinduja Srinivasan, composer Elizabeth Younan, and the engineers at Studio D Podcast Production.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Milton H. Clark, Sr. Much of this story comes from his book, Six Degrees of Freedom.
KATIE HAFNER: We’re grateful to Mike Fung, Cathie Bennett Warner, Dominique Guilford, Jeff DelViscio, Maria Klawe, Michelle Nijhuis, Susan Kare, Jeannie Stivers, Carol Lawson, and our interns, Hilda Gitchell and Hannah Carroll. Thanks also to Paula Goodwin, Nicole Searing and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie. Many thanks to Barnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passion in STEM.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Tennessee State University, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the University of Louisville, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville for helping us with our search.
A special shout out to the Print Shop on Martha’s Vineyard
KATIE HAFNER: and… my closet, where this podcast was recorded.
Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
You can learn more about our initiative at lost women of science dot org or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Find us @lostwomenofsci. That’s lost women of S C I.
Thank you so much for listening.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.
KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie Hafner.
LISTEN TO EPISODE ONE