Black woman who worked on the Apollo 11 craft reflects on her job as an electric assembler.
BY ISAIAH MITCHELL
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/TNS
When the Apollo 11 spacecraft blasted off to the moon 50 years ago this month, one African-American woman watched from the manufacturing facility that worked on the spacecraft.
Her name is Mary Matilda Factory.
The story of how she earned her seat in that historic spot begins in 1964, when Factory joined an aviation company called North American Rockwell in Oklahoma as an electric assembler.
100 this year
A talented solderer, she was the first Black woman hired by the company, which later merged with Boeing.
Factory worked to build the Minuteman missile cables and the Apollo crafts, for which she received an Apollo Achievement Award as a member of the team to put the first man on the moon.
After celebrating her 100th birthday this year and appearing at the annual 2019 Women’s Leadership Summit in Dallas, she spoke to The Dallas Morning News about working behind the scenes on spaceships in the segregated 1960s.
“I got a letter from the president of NASA. I got a beautiful letter from them, NASA, how they appreciate my work, you know. helping us get a man to the moon.’’
– Mary Matilda Factory
Q: How did you get your first job?
A: Well, I put in the application, and they called me for an interview, and then they called me back for the job. And I had to go through tests, you know. I did my 40 hours of school, and I passed that. I passed my oral work. And then I went on to doing my work.
I was on the line, and I had my own station. I had to pass a physical because I had to be in condition. Your nerves had to be in condition.
They wouldn’t really want to hire you unless you had a real steady hand. Well, I had no trouble or nothing. I passed all of that.
Q: What was the work like?
A: I had to really fight during segregation coming up and all. I had a hard time sticking, but I fought it out. I was the only Black woman in that round room, the television room, when the ship was landing on the moon.
Other guys would come from different companies, different cities, hunting for somebody with a steady hand.
With my tests and my grades and helping with blueprints, I used my own mind and my brain to do a lot of stuff like that. Routing and reworking cables and things coming in, reworking them and putting them back in condition.
Supervisors would come in and give me work to do like routing cables and the Minuteman cable and all of that, and they didn’t know how to route it on the board. And they found out I could do that.
Well, the guys would come in, and I would tell them, “Will you find a hamburger or something and give me two hours and come back? And then you’ll have it done.” I was the only Black woman in that television room because I had my work up to par.
Q: What made you want to work in that job in the first place?
A: Well, I was trying to get a better job paying more money. I have six children and I needed ways for them when they got out of high school to have enough money to save for college, you know.
And I always liked the plane rides anyway. And that made me think, “Well, I’ll go out there and work on them and I’ll know how to fly one.”
Q: Do you want to see America make it onto the moon again?
A: Well, yes. I would like to see it, if I could be that lucky. I would like to see the spaceship go to the moon again. They sent me a replica of the last one that went to the moon — the Starliner.
I got a letter from the president of NASA. I got a beautiful letter from them, NASA, how they appreciate my work, you know. Helping us get a man to the moon.
Q: Besides NASA equipment, what else did you work on?
A: I worked on the Minuteman cable. And I worked on chassis and reworking wiring. You know, if they come in off the work that they’ve torn up and blown up, they bring rework in, and I could put it back together, reroute, and put it back in with no flaws in my work.
They kept me even after I was laid off, you know. We had jobs, or at least I did, anywhere I wanted to go to work at another plant in a different city. That’s why I retired, you know, because I have a family and I didn’t want to go away from home. But I had a job anywhere I wanted to go.
You know, I didn’t have any flaws in my work. I worked in connectors and wirings and reworked stuff blown up and torn up and I put it back together and saved the company a lot of money.
The others would work two weeks on something when I’d get mine out in maybe a week, you know. And I was always ahead of time, and when I put it up, it passed. It had to pass.
Q: Did you ever get in trouble for anything?
A: I went to the office once on paperwork. My supervisor said, “Mary you have to go up to the office.” I said what do they want? He said he didn’t know, but they wanted me up there.
So I went up to the office, sat there talking to them, to tell me what they wanted, and they wouldn’t get around to it. And I said, “Well, I’m going on back and getting on my job, because I’m wasting time up here with y’all. Y’all can’t tell me what you want with me.”
And they said, “Mary, we’re getting your work, and everything’s good, but you don’t have it recorded on your worksheets.”
I said, “Is that what y’all got me up here for? Boss, we’re going to have a good time now because I was taking 30 minutes to talk to y’all. Y’all done wasted 30 minutes up here, and y’all ask me if I want a cigarette and a drink of water and to go back to my seat, but I ain’t going back.
I’ve been wanting to talk to you all like this.” They said, “What is it, Miss?” When I got through, they were saying, “Take her back — Mary, go back to your station and get to work!”
You see, I had baskets of my work done — wiring and routing, chassis, and reworking all the time, but I wasn’t putting down my work on the paper. But my work was on time.
Q: Any memorable experiences?
A: My work that I did had big ducks coming from other cities, other companies.
They would come hunting somebody with a steady hand to do the jobs they wanted done because they couldn’t find enough of them in that company. You couldn’t have a tremor in your hands, soldering 14 karat gold pins in the connector.
In 1965, the supervisor said, “Mary, I might get you to make a speech down to the McAlester Hotel.” Why, it wasn’t a hotel then, just a motel, just a little junked-up place.
He said, “I want you to make a speech down there about how much North American Rockwell means to you and your family.” I said, “No, I can’t do that.” And someone said, “No, this is your chance.”
So I took it. I said, “Who am I making the speech to?” And they said, “Guys coming from different states. The big ducks are coming down there for a meeting.” And I went on down there and made my speech and ate my T-bone steak sitting up there by the big boys, saying what North American Rockwell meant to me and my family.
I enjoyed my job. Yeah, I loved my job. But I just had to save — I had six kids, you know.
Q: What was the hardest thing about the job?
A: Well, let me get it together, because I didn’t have a hard time. Passing my work, getting my work done, having it tested and it passed.
If it weren’t right, they’d just clip it off, throw it in the trash and keep walking.
You had a board, and you pasted on that board every connector that you made, and wiring and all, and you had to put it in shape and have no corrosion and no flaws on your pins. You had that gold messed up, you walked out that door. That’s how hard it was.
Many of them walked out crying, they couldn’t pass that test. But I stayed on that line until I left.
Yeah, my story’s so long and big and hard, oh my God, but I made it. I made it.
Turned 100 in January
Mary Factory turned 100 years old on Jan. 17. A birthday celebration was held for her in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which was attended by her family and friends.
She was born Mary Matilda Johnson on Jan. 17, 1919 in Blocker, Oklahoma, the oldest of seven born to Melvina and Jess Johnson.
Mrs. Factory married John Lewis Factory in 1941 and the couple had seven children.
She worked for North American Rockwell – now Boeing – in McAlester from 1964 until 1975. While working there, she received the highest honor from NASA – the Apollo Achievement Award.
Information about Mrs. Factory is from the McAlester News-Capital, which serves Southeast Oklahoma.