Episode Description

With her knack for fixing household appliances in early childhood, Y.Y. was practically born an engineer. And fortunately, she had a family that nurtured her atypical interest—even when the segregated South made pursuing it almost impossible.

With a librarian mother and a physician father, Y.Y .was brought up in a supportive, educated, and prosperous Black enclave of Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents nurtured her knack for engineering. She got her start as a young child when she repaired the family toaster. An early introduction to a Black pilot group inspired her to fly planes, and she applied to the University of Louisville, where she hoped to study engineering and eventually aeronautics—until she learned her race disqualified her.

Episode Transcript

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: She was known in her family for being able to fixthings. She grabbed the toaster and took it up to her room, and decided she wasgoing to take it apart and figure out why it wasn't working. And…

KATIE HAFNER: Oh my god… Whodoes that? 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I know.She was young. She was maybe nine.

KATIE HAFNER: I'm KatieHafner. And this is Lost Women of Science.We're calling this season “The First Lady of Engineering.” It's about YvonneYoung Clark, who we’ll come to know by her nickname, Y.Y.

From day one at Lost Women of Science,we set out to include female scientists in all their diversity. Anyone who hasseen Hidden Figures or readthe book knows that female scientists are a wonderfully diverse group—andalways were…

Our producer Sophie McNultyfound Y.Y. in a book titled Black Women Scientists inthe United States, by Wini Warren. The chapter was about a mechanicalengineer named Yvonne Young Clark, whose passion for tinkering led to abrilliant career in both industry and academia.  Around that time we'dgotten interested in this idea of  “chains of knowledge” and theimportance—to this day—of female mentors for young women in science. And wethought dedicating a full season to someone who made teaching and mentoring ahuge part of her mission might be fascinating. And we were right.

CHARLES FLACK: She was thefirst African American female faculty member, as well as the first AfricanAmerican engineering female department head at Tennessee State. So when she wasaround, it was like, you know, you walk different, you acted different.

PEGGY BAKER: You know,you’re walking down the hall, “Baker!” I'm like, “yes, ma'am.”

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. wasbeloved in her circles and well beyond. In 1964, Ebony Magazine ran abig profile of her. Among students and fellow engineers, she was a celebrity, alegend, even. 

When I first looked up Y.Y.,I found a slew of firsts: She was the first woman to get a bachelor’s degree inmechanical engineering from Howard University, the first African American womanengineer hired at RCA-Victor, the first African American member of the Societyof Women Engineers, the first woman to earn a master’s degree in engineeringmanagement from Vanderbilt University… 

I learned that at NASA, sheworked on engines for the Saturn Five rocket, which launched the firstastronauts to the moon. She helped design the sealed boxes that transportedmoon rocks back to Earth. 

And most of this work shedid over summer breaks; because during the academic year Y.Y. was teaching. Shetaught mechanical engineering for 55 years at Tennessee State, a historicallyBlack university in Nashville. She inspired generations of young Blackengineers, both men and women.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So Ifully expected, it would be someone that I would have some familiarity with. Imean, I've got a fairly good knowledge of African American history and I…

KATIE HAFNER: That’s CarolSutton Lewis—the same person you heard at the very beginning. Carol and I havebeen tracking down Y.Y.’s story together, and having weekly phone calls totouch base.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …andwhat’s been really interesting is as we have delved into her story as a, as amechanical engineer and as a Black woman in the south, a lot of what we findcomes back to her family.

KATIE HAFNER: To tell Y.Y.’sstory, which in many ways is a family story, Carol is joining me as cohost thisseason. She has a background as a lawyer, and she hosts her own podcast called Ground Control Parenting,which is a series of conversations about parenting Black and Brownchildren.  

Carol did the bulk of thereporting about Y.Y. Clark. 

So Carol, Y.Y.’s story isone of multitudes. Where did you start?

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So thefirst thing I did was I went to Seattle to meet Y.Y.’s daughter, Carol Lawson.

Carol came to the Airbnbwhere I was staying. She pulled up in her car with stacks of material she hadon her mom. 

Carol laid out all the booksand papers on a table, and once we sat down, we dove into the photos.


CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Oh. Wow.At Redstone Arsenal in 1964. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It’s ablack and white shot of Y.Y. standing next to a rocket with “U.S. Army”stenciled on the side—and she is beaming. She’s wearing a cute sleeveless dressand heels.  

CAROL LAWSON: There's,there's her and Hortense. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thisone’s a baby picture—little Yvonne, on her mother’s lap.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And lookat the pearls. She's holding her mother's pearls.

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. was bornGeorgianna Yvonne Young on April 13, 1929 in Houston, Texas. She was namedafter two of her great aunts, Georgia and Anna, but she went by her middlename, Yvonne.

Right from the start, Yvonneshowed an interest in all things mechanical.

ERECTOR CLIP 1: Erector: the all steelconstruction set for beginners or young builders or junior engineers.

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. loved herLincoln Logs and her Erector Set…toys that were—at the time—exclusivelymarketed to boys.

ERECTOR CLIP 2: Erector has exciting appeal forall boys. 

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y.’s earlyengineering projects weren’t limited to her toys. In one of our weekly calls,Carol told me about one moment that might have been the pivotal one for Y.Y.’scareer trajectory… 

It’s time to explain whathappened with that toaster…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thefamily toaster stopped working, the toast was burning on one side and notheating up on the other, and her father said to the housekeeper, “Well, we’llget a new one.” And Y.Y. grabbed the toaster and took it up to her room anddecided she was going to take it apart and figure out why it wasn'tworking. 

And so she fixed it and shedidn’t tell anyone. She snuck it back down into the kitchen.

The next morning Y.Y. wokeup to the smell of toast. And she ran downstairs just in time to witness thehousekeeper saying to Y.Y.'s father, “Wow. You got a new toaster reallyquickly,” to which Y.Y.'s father responded, “I didn't buy a new toaster,” andhe determined that Y.Y. had fixed it.

KATIE HAFNER: After a quickfire safety talk, he told her how impressed he was.

KATIE HAFNER: Doesn't itspeak volumes about her father too?

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Oh,absolutely. The family’s perspective was if you want to do this, let's figureout how you do this and we'll support you doing it.

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y’.s familywould make all the difference when it came to nurturing her interests, andeventually, helping her build a career. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Hermother, Hortense Houston Young, grew up in Texas…

CAROL LAWSON: She went toFisk… 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’sFisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville…

CAROL LAWSON: …majored inEnglish…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …andthen got a second bachelor's degree in library science from the University ofIllinois…

CAROL LAWSON: And she alsomarried my grandfather, Dr C. Milton Young.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.'sfather, Dr. Coleman Milton Young, studied medicine at Fisk, and the familyeventually moved to Louisville, Kentucky.

TOM OWEN: They lived in the800 block, 818, South 6th Street. So the traditional Black business district,would've been about five blocks to the north,

KATIE HAFNER: Tom Owen is anarchivist at the University of Louisville. Carol and I sat down to talk to himabout his true passion: the city of Louisville itself.

TOM OWEN: I'm 82 years old.I still do walking tours, bicycle tours, that's about it. A Louisville native.

KATIE HAFNER: Tom told us heoften bikes past Y.Y.'s old block. It's auto shops and massage parlors now, butback in the thirties, it was a row of brick, shotgun-style houses, where uppermiddle class Black families lived.

TOM OWEN: Yvonne was raisedin a family that would have been among the most comfortable African Americanfamilies here in Louisville.

KATIE HAFNER: The Youngshosted derby parties and political fundraisers. Y.Y.’s father, the doctor…

TOM OWEN: He was on thestaff of the private, uh, African American hospital called Red Cross hospital.And he was chief of staff for a, a season. He also was the, uh, physician atLouisville Municipal, which was a racially separate undergraduate college ofthe University of Louisville.

KATIE HAFNER: Hortenseworked at the University too, as a librarian. She also wrote a newspaper columnfor the Louisville Defender. Itwas called “Tense Topics,” both because her nickname was Tense, and because shewrote about the issues that riled her up most: segregation, housingdiscrimination, and civil rights. 

1930s Louisville gave herplenty to work with: At the time, there was only one department store inLouisville where Black customers could try on clothes. Y.Y.’s school, like allschools, was segregated, and Black residents lived with the constant threat ofracist violence, including the threat of lynchings.

TOM OWEN: It's not a prettypicture.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This wasthe world Y.Y.—and her younger brother, Milton—were brought up in. A segregatedcity, in the segregated South, at the start of the Great Depression. Y.Y. wouldneed more than a knack for machinery to make it as an engineer. 

Her daughter, Carol, pointsto two sources of strength Y.Y. drew from: the first was that, from a veryearly age… 

CAROL LAWSON: She was acongenital stutterer.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When Y.Y.started school, she stuttered. And as you might imagine, the reactions fromother children were not kind. It reached a point where Y.Y. practically stoppedtalking in her classes.

CAROL LAWSON: That was anearly introduction to, not discrimination, but ill feelings from other humansfor no reason. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But Y.Y.got something out ofall of this—something Carol calls her “rhino-skin.” 

CAROL LAWSON: When you'resubjected to that at an early age, you start to learn a lot about humans andrecognizing, that's your problem. I'm not wrong. That's your problem. I got toslow down what I have to say so I can be clear. But I am right. Just because Istutter doesn't mean I'm wrong.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thesecond source of Y.Y.’s strength takes a little more explaining. When Carolstarted showing me the books she'd brought, I quickly discovered...

CAROL LAWSON: Most of themare about her family.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.’sfamily has a fascinating history—and it’s recorded.

CAROL LAWSON: This is The Precious Memories of aBlack Socialite: A Narrative of the Life and Times of Constance HoustonThompson. Who’s she? She’s my mom’s mother’s sister. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Carolhad all these books about her mother’s relatives, and they went back multiplegenerations.

CAROL LAWSON: And so thisone is the movement of rural African-Americans to Houston, speakingspecifically about the Houston family.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.'sfamily, on her mother’s side, were Houstons. And the reason they had the lastname Houston… 

CAROL LAWSON: So the book isabout the legacy of the slaves of Sam Houston.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: GeneralSam Houston, founding father of Texas, reason why the city of Houston is calledHouston, owned slaves. 

And one of the men heenslaved was…

CAROL LAWSON: JoshuaHouston 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.’sgreat grandfather.

SKIP GATES: Our ancestorswere, by law, they were owned by other people, right? They were property, theywere commodities. They were chattel.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That'sHenry Louis Gates, Jr., or as he’s called by many, Skip Gates. 

SKIP GATES: In reality, theywere human beings fighting for their humanity, just as Joshua Houston Sr. was.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: SkipGates is a historian, professor, and literary critic who serves as Director ofthe Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at HarvardUniversity. You might know him as the host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots. 

Like me, he was interestedto discover Y.Y.’s lineage and to learn about Joshua Houston. 

SKIP GATES: You know, he'sbeen written about…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.'sgreat grandfather, Joshua Houston, was born into slavery in 1822, in Alabama.And one of the first things I learned about him was that he could read andwrite. This was at a time when in many Southern states, that was illegal.

SKIP GATES: In JoshuaHouston's case, he participated in Bible study while owned by his first masterand mistress, Temple and Nancy Lee.

When Temple Lee died, heleft Joshua to his daughter, Margaret, and as you know, Margaret would marrySam Houston.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Theirmarriage is how Joshua Houston wound up in Texas with the last nameHouston. 

His education meant thatfollowing the Civil War and emancipation, Joshua was in a better position topursue life as a free man. He bought property, and opened his own blacksmith’sshop. 

This was during the timeknown as Reconstruction, in the years after the war.

SKIP GATES: the hallmarks ofreconstruction were the ratification of what we now call the ReconstructionConstitutional Amendments: the 13th amendment…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …whichended slavery…

SKIP GATES: The 14thamendment…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …whichestablished birthright citizenship, and gave all US citizens equal protectionunder the law.

SKIP GATES: And then finallythe 15th amendment, which gave all Black men the right to vote.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: A rightthat was unprecedented, and eagerly exercised.

SKIP GATES: The firstfreedom summer, as I put it, was the summer of 1867, when all those Black menformerly enslaved and free got the right to vote. They registered to vote inthat first freedom summer, 80%. Think about that.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And someof them ran for office—including Joshua Houston.

SKIP GATES: He was a cityalderman in Huntsville, Texas in 1867 and in 1870, and he won election as acounty commissioner in 1878 and in 1882.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Joshuawent on to have eight children, and he made sure they also had access toeducation and opportunities. One of his sons went to Howard University andultimately founded a school—the first African American school in Texas to go tothe 12th grade. 

The Houston children werepolitically engaged, college-educated, and they owned property.

SKIP GATES: And so I didsome research and about 20% of the Black community was able to own property by1900.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Whichmeans, of course, 80% didn't. The Houstons were part of a small, privilegedclass of Black people that flourished during Reconstruction. 

SKIP GATES: So we've alwayshad these class divisions within the African American community.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: TheHouston family history illuminates a part of Black history that often getslost—and that is the history of Black prosperity. 

Still, their relativeprivilege didn’t end the reality of racism, or the potential for violence.Especially because in the wake of the expansion of rights duringReconstruction, there was a brutal backlash.

SKIP GATES: The Freedmen'sBureau in Texas has a register of, of murders listing over a thousand in theyear between 1865 and 1866.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Blackpeople faced a constant terrorist threat. 

So vigilante violence, inother words, was a continuous part of Reconstruction.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS:And soon,the legislative rollback began. Laws were put into place to reestablish asystem of economic and political disenfranchisement for Black Americans. Thiswas the so-called "Redemption" of the Southern states.

SKIP GATES: And it has thatfunny name because these racists saying, they were redeeming the purity of theSouth, because of the evils of what they called Negro rule.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS:Reconstruction and its early promise of expanding rights collapsed in 1877,when federal troops pulled out of the South.

SKIP GATES: And it was thosefederal troops that were guaranteeing the right of Black men to vote in thesouth.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Withoutthat guarantee, it became all too easy for the so-called Redeemers to strictlyenforce segregation. For Black Americans like Y.Y.'s family, this meant forgingtheir own world.

SKIP GATES: if you lifted upthe curtain, the color curtain, Black people under segregation, were not sayingwoe is me and not, you know, begging for admission into the white world.

They formed a rich andvarious and diverse and nurturing Black world that had deep roots and sustainedus.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.’srelatives were exemplars of this legacy. They gathered in Black fraternitiesand sororities, at cotillions, bridge parties. They created strong, resilientcommunities and found ways to thrive. Her family included journalists, doctors,cooks, teachers.  

CAROL LAWSON: And she knewthem. And they weren't mythical people on the wall that I've seen, you know,and grandma told me a story, you know, she knew those people.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This was the secondsource of Y.Y.’s strength. 

CAROL LAWSON: And, and ithelps you understand why Yvonne was the way Yvonne was, or Y.Y. was the way shewas. They were all about promoting, protecting, and uplifting Black folk.110%. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Comingup, Y.Y.’s family needs to put up a fight…

CAROL LAWSON: Don't do anythingwrong to Black folks. Cause we're gonna come get you. 

Y.Y.: I am Yvonne Y. Clark.78. Today's date is October the 26th, 2007. Nashville, Tennessee. And I’m beinginterviewed by my daughter. 

KATIE HAFNER: That’s Y.Y.you’re hearing. 

This tape is from a StoryCorpsinterview she recorded with her daughter, Carol Lawson.

Y.Y. died in 2019, a fewmonths shy of 90 years old.

CAROL LAWSON: So Yvonne…Mom.

Y.Y.: Thank you.

CAROL LAWSON: Tell me, whydid you want to become an engineer?

Y.Y.: I wanted to ferryairplanes between the United States and England.

KATIE HAFNER: This was theearly 1940s, and the US had just entered World War II. The Youngs opened uptheir Louisville home to the Black military personnel based in Kentucky. Here’sY.Y. describing that.

Y.Y.: Mom and dad hadparties and the Godman Field pilots would come by the house. That was the Blackpilot group. You’d hear them talk about their flyings around the United Statesand the world, and it made me want to fly.

KATIE HAFNER: I just need tosay, Carol, that—I love her voice so much. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yeah,absolutely.

KATIE HAFNER: Anyway, soshe, she decided to become a pilot. And the Godman pilots she met that night,they were all men. But she didn’t—one thing that is striking me about the wholeY.Y. story to date is that the fact that she was a woman doesn’t seem to havefigured into that. So anyway, but at the time, it seemed like a future inaviation might be possible for a young woman, too… 

ARCHIVAL TAPE: This isTexas, cradle of our Army’s airforce.

KATIE HAFNER: With so manymale pilots overseas, the US Army Air Force began to recruit women. 

ARCHIVAL TAPE: And out ofthose buses are stepping girls, girls who give a new angle to an airforcestory. They’re WASPS.

KATIE HAFNER: These “girls”were known as Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs. 

ARCHIVAL TAPE: Nobody shouldever tell a WASP that flying's not a woman's job. They wouldn't believe it.

KATIE HAFNER: But at thetime that Y.Y. got interested in flying, there were no Black WASPs. MildredHemmons Carter, a Black pilot who trained at Tuskegee, applied, and qualified,but was rejected on the basis of race.

That didn’t stop Y.Y.. Shehad made up her mind—she was going to use her mechanical skills towardsaviation. And since all the pilots she talked to had studied engineering, shedecided to do the same. 

MILTON CLARK: Literally thenext day, she went down to Central High School and looked up what theirengineering courses were so that she could sign up for them for the nextsemester.

KATIE HAFNER: That’s Y.Y.’sson, Milton Clark. 

MILTON CLARK: She had boughther T-square and she bought her protractor and everything that she needed totake the course. And when she went to the classroom, the instructor wouldn'tlet her in… because she was a female.

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. calledthis her first experience of “pure sexism.” Why  “pure?” Because, in herwords, “it made no logical sense.” That’s something to note about Y.Y.; forher, discrimination wasn’t just morally wrong, it waswrong because it defied reason. It’s impossible to disentangle Y.Y.’s ethics,her spirit, and her world view from her adherence to logic and reason.

Her rejection from theschool’s mechanical drawing course was also completely differentfrom how she was accustomed to being treated at home. Her parents nurtured herambitions, and when they said no, they had good reason. 

And it was her parents who,through their tight-knit, talented, diverse community, offered Y.Y. a path tothe sky. 


Y.Y.: Mom had a friend. Hehad an airplane, 

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y.’s mothergot her friend to take them on a flight. Hortense sat in the back, so herdaughter could sit in the cockpit next to the pilot.

Y.Y.: And, uh, he let metake over the controls once he took off and mom was on the passenger seat inthe back, it was nice.

CAROL LAWSON: So that's kindof where it all began.

Y.Y.: Mmmhmm.


KATIE HAFNER: Back atschool, Y.Y. found a practical workaround after being rejected from the mechanicaldrawing class: She signed up to take the course over the summer, with adifferent teacher. 

Another semester, she tookan aeronautics class, where she learned about the mechanics of airplanes.

Y.Y.: That was, that wascool. We would make planes. You would go out on the fire escape, roll yourpropeller, and then aim it at the football field and watch it fly.

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. zoomedthrough high school. After only two years, she graduated in the top 25% of herclass at Central High School in Louisville. She was only 16. 

Her parents thought that wastoo young to start college, so they sent her up north to stay with a familyfriend, and take a few additional courses… 

Y.Y.: So I went to Bostonfor two years and attended Girls Latin, where I took French and Latin, etcetera.

KATIE HAFNER: Two yearslater, when she turned 18, it was time to apply to college.

Y.Y.: I applied toUniversity of Louisville, down the street from me, uh, University of Illinoisat Urbana, and Howard University in Washington, DC. 

KATIE HAFNER: According toMilton, her son, Y.Y. was accepted at all three schools. But after two years inBoston, her preference was to stay close to home.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So Y.Y.picked the University of Louisville. And as Milton tells it, in 1947, she wentto a scheduled orientation with her mother, Hortense, acceptance letter inhand. Y.Y.’s daughter Carol tells us that Y.Y. was all set to confirmattendance…

CAROL LAWSON: Until theyfound out she was Black. And then they said, oh no, you can't come.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: As inmany other times, in Y.Y.'s life, everything was fine until they saw her. As Y.Y.herself told her daughter Carol,

Y.Y.: I couldn't get in


Y.Y.: A Black down south.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: TheUniversity of Louisville was a segregated school.

TOM OWEN: The major obstaclewas called the Day Law.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’sTom Owen again.

TOM OWEN: And that hadessentially been interpreted as a prohibition against biracial education inboth public and private institutions.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Even ifthe University of Louisville had wanted to enroll Y.Y.,at that time in Kentucky, because of the Day Law, it was actually illegal for them to doso. 

KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. wouldhave been expected to attend the segregated Black undergraduate college whereboth her parents worked, Louisville Municipal. But Municipal didn’t offer theclasses that Y.Y. needed.

TOM OWEN: They would havesome technical courses, but no, to my knowledge, they did not have a program inengineering at all.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Separatebut equal was a fiction–as much in Kentucky higher education as anywhereelse. 

And the NAACP was constantlyon the lookout for cases that would prove it…

TOM OWEN: Beginning in the1930s, it was clear that the NAACP was pushing to get admission to graduateeducation in Kentucky.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In 1941,the NAACP had taken on the case of an aspiring engineering student fromLouisville named Charles Lamont Eubanks. The state’s segregated Black collegehad no engineering program, so Eubanks applied to the local all-white publicuniversity, and was rejected. In the end, the case was dismissed. Eubanks, orany Black high school graduate in Kentucky who wanted to study engineering,would have to look out of state. 

KATIE HAFNER: Pretty mucheverything was set up to encourage Y.Y. to either give up on engineering, or goto school somewhere else. In fact, in Kentucky…

TOM OWEN: There was a fundto pay African Americans to go to graduate school out of state. It didn't payfor expenses or living expenses to leave the state and the fund was frequentlydepleted.

KATIE HAFNER: Not only wasthe fund insufficient, graduate students were given priority. Y.Y. was applyingas an undergraduate, so she would have found it difficult to qualify. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But Y.Y.had gotten admitted—she had the letter. Y.Y.’sparents were not going to take this lying down. Remember, this is Hortensewe’re talking about—NAACP member, journalist…So Y.Y.’s parents…

CAROL LAWSON: Being theeducated folks that know what our rights are, said, you know what? We'll takeyou to court. And then we'll decide if she can come.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Hortensethreatened to take legal action. She spent several days negotiating directlywith the University of Louisville. If her daughter’s acceptance letter wasn’tgoing to get her admission, Hortense was going to make sure it got hersomething.

YVONNE CLARK: I asked mom,well, we live right there in Louisville. Why can't we get room and board? Momsaid, leave it alone, honey, leave it alone. I said, okay, mom, you’re incharge.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS:Eventually, they worked out a deal: Louisville would cover Y.Y.’s tuition at aschool that admitted Black students, and the family would agree not to sue theuniversity.

YVONNE CLARK: And Universityof Louisville paid my tuition at Howard University.

KATIE HAFNER: We wondered ifthe University of Louisville had any records from 1947, when Y.Y. startedschool. So we asked Tom to look. He did a lot of digging. Three days straightof combing through city directories, newspaper clippings, and the university'sown archives…And he found a file.

TOM OWEN: And guess what itwas titled? Negro Admissions. I got those three goddamn files out. They startin 1948, not 1947, and she's not in there.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But Ijust couldn’t leave it at that. I asked Tom, “Isn’t it possible that theUniversity didn’t want this on the record at all? Couldn’t the negotiationshave happened behind closed doors?”

TOM OWEN: Oh, I don't haveany trouble believing that it could have happened. I'm just, you know, my, my,my orientation is give me the paper, give me the document. And I wish, I wish,you know, if I could live so long, I'd keep on looking.

KATIE HAFNER: My questionwas why she applied there in the first place. I have no doubt that Y.Y.’sfamily knew that the University of Louisville was a segregated school. They worked at Municipal,the University’s all-Black undergraduate college.

TOM OWEN: That does notsurprise me. Hortense seems, just looking at the clips, clips, clips, clips,seems intense to me, committed to me, pushing on the edges, challenging things.And so that does not surprise me.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Itcertainly didn’t surprise me either. This well educated, civically minded Blackfamily is dealing with a rule that says their whip smart daughter, who wantedto be an engineer, was being denied that opportunity solely because she wasBlack? When the Youngs saw an unjust rule, they refused to accept it. And theyactively challenged it.

TOM OWEN: Hortenseespecially was just a civic activist in the fullest sense of the word.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.might well have applied to the University of Louisville fully knowing howunlikely it was that she would be able to attend. The NAACP was applying thisstrategy across the country  intentionally exposing and challengingdiscrimination. This was a template for the civilrights movement.  

It wouldn’t be until 1948,the year after Y.Y. applied to the University of Louisville, that the NAACPfiled the case that would overturn segregated higher education in Kentucky.

TOM OWEN: And Lyman Johnsonwas the successful one.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: LymanJohnson was a social studies teacher and NAACP member in Louisville. He taughtat Y.Y.’s school—the segregated Central High School. Unlike Y.Y., he wasapplying for graduate study—a PhD. It was immediately evident that KentuckyState, a Black undergraduate college, would not provide him with the courseworkthat a white PhD student would receive at the University of Kentucky. He suedthe University in 1948, and in 1949, he won.

KATIE HAFNER: This victorydidn’t make much difference to Y.Y., who was already at Howard by then, but itchanged a few things for her family. In fact, soon after Y.Y. made her deal with theUniversity of Louisville…

MILTON CLARK: My uncle, herbrother, made application. 

KATIE HAFNER: Milton told usthat Y.Y.'s younger brother also applied to theUniversity of Louisville. 

MILTON CLARK: So it was kindof like, okay here come the Youngs again.

KATIE HAFNER: This time, theuniversity knew who they were dealing with. Plus, the decision in the LymanJohnson case had just come out the previous spring, which is how…

MILTON CLARK: It's my uncle,her brother, who broke the color barrier. And my grandmother broke the colorbarrier at the law school.

KATIE HAFNER: That's right.Hortense would later go to law school at the University of Louisville. In 1951,she was one of four Black students to enroll.

MILTON CLARK: And that's thething, you know, we talk about mom, but the family is really the dynamic that'sin play here.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Y.Y.’sfamily didn’t create her passion, her talents. Those were her own. What herfamily did do, and what they would continue to do, was make her interestsviable in a world that wasn’t fair.

MILTON CLARK: There wasnothing out of bounds with her parents.

Y.Y.: They didn't putobstacles in front of me. They said, if you want it, you will. 

CAROL LAWSON: I think that'ssomething that we probably, even as a community now, don't give enough creditto: just how much effort it can take to raise an Yvonne.

KATIE HAFNER: Next time on Lost Women of Science, Y.Y.leaves the nest.

This has been Lost Women of Science.Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including our co-executiveproducer Amy Scharf, producer Ashraya Gupta, senior editor Nora Mathison,associate producer Sinduja Srinivasan, composer Elizabeth Younan, and theengineers at Studio D Podcast Production. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thankyou to Milton H. Clark, Sr. Much of this story comes from his book, Six Degrees of Freedom.

KATIE HAFNER: We’re gratefulto Mike Fung, Cathie Bennett Warner, Dominique Guilford, Jeff DelViscio, MariaKlawe, Michelle Nijhuis, Susan Kare, Jeannie Stivers, Carol Lawson, and ourinterns, Hilda Gitchell and Hannah Carroll. Thanks also to Paula Goodwin,Nicole Searing and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie. Many thanks toBarnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passion inSTEM.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thankyou to Tennessee State University, the Smithsonian’s National Air and SpaceMuseum, the University of Louisville, and the University of Alabama inHuntsville for helping us with our search. 

And a special shout out tothe Print Shop on Martha’s Vineyard…

KATIE HAFNER: …and mycloset, where this podcast was recorded.

Lost Women of Scienceis funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the JohnTempleton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful andmeaningful lives. 

This podcast is distributedby PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.

You can learn more about ourinitiative at lostwomenofscience.org or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.Find us @lostwomenofsci. That’s lost women of S C I.

Thank you so much forlistening. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’mCarol Sutton Lewis.

KATIE HAFNER: And I’m KatieHafner.


Katie Hafner

Host & Executive Producer

Katie Hafner was a longtime reporter for The New York Times, where she continues to be a frequent contributor. Katie is uniquely positioned to tell the stories of lost women of science. Not only does she bring a skilled hand to complex narratives, but she has been writing about women in STEM for nearly 30 years. She is the author of six books of non-fiction, and her first novel, The Boys, was published in July 2022 by Spiegel & Grau. Katie is also the host and executive producer of Our Mothers Ourselves, an interview podcast that celebrates extraordinary mothers.

All season 3 episodes