Hidden Figures

by Margot Lee Shetterly

I had been putting off going to see the much-talked-about film Hidden Figures until I finished reading the book, which with my full-time teaching position and my newly 10-year-old son, took longer than I expected.

I’m going to talk about the book here, after which I’ll see and report back on the movie.

The book Hidden Figures is the debut work of Margot Lee Shetterly, about the role African-American women mathematicians played in the United States Space race. Having already thoroughly enjoyed Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt, I was concerned that this was just a knock-off. Boy was I wrong. Rise of the Rocket Girls told the story of the role of women in the beginnings of JPL in Pasadena, and their subsequent role when it was later subsumed under NASA. I was impressed enough to name my new website Rocket Girls, in their honor. These women, known as computers, performed all the mathematical calculations their male engineers required, long before the electronic versions took on that role and title. The level of mathematics competency required to fill such positions was far higher than most women achieve today.

Hidden Figures, however, was not another story about women computers in the space race. Rather, it was the story of black women in the space race. And, before reading, I was quite ignorant of how different the color of skin colored these latter women’s experiences.

World War II played a much-needed crucial role in setting the stage for gender and racial equality. With most of the eligible men off fighting the war in Europe and Asia, and the incredible “man” power needed at home to support their efforts, hiring women for previous “male-only” positions became a necessity.

“Reduce your household duties! Women who are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and do jobs previously filled by men should call the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory,” read one hiring notice.

Urged by necessity, and the strong lobbying and insistent diplomacy of Civil Rights activist Asa Philip Randolph, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law Executive Orders 8802 and 9346, desegregating the defense industry and creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission, respectively, paving the way for blacks to enter the professional workforce on par with their white counterparts.

Still, the hiring of black women necessitated the introduction to Langley of colored washroom and cafeteria signs, the latter of which were continually being removed by one of the black Langley computers, and mysteriously reappearing yet again. Until one day, the signs no longer resurfaced.

The road to equality was paved by the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and these nearly forgotten women. And, when, after the war, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s efforts were redirected under NASA from “victory through airpower,” to beating America’s cold war enemies into space, the African-American female “West Computers” were fully integrated into NASA’s workforce.

Shetterly writes how no one expected after the war for women to “refuse to leave the workforce,” nor that “American Negroes would persist in their demands for full access to the founding ideals of their country.”

“Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’ s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.” (Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (Kindle Locations 322-325). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition).


Although many were chronicled in Shetterly’s book, the stories of three African-American women were highlighted — those of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Goble Johnson.

Dorothy Vaughan born in 1910 was a mathematics prodigy of sorts. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, attended Wilberforce University on full scholarship, a premier black college in Ohio, and was urged by her professors to earn a masters degree in mathematics at Howard University. Unfortunately, with the oncoming Depression, Dorothy’s immediate financial needs necessitated her becoming math teacher, earning approximately half of what her white counterparts earned, the latter of which were already among the lowest paid in the nation. During the war, Dorothy took on a summer job of laundress at Camp Pickett, and eventually came to work at NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, at Langley. Her annual salary of $2000 was more than twice her $850 annual teacher’s salary. Dorothy eventually became the head and unofficial matriarch of the black women computers, after the untimely passing of her white female boss Marge Hannah.

Mary Jackson also started out as a math teacher after having earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and the physical sciences from Hampton Institute. She came to Langley in 1951 and worked under Dorothy Vaughan as a “West Computer.” Kazimierz Czarnecki took her into his compressibility research division and encouraged her to take graduate-level courses at night to earn the title of engineer. She successfully petitioned the City of Hampton to attend these white-only courses, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Katherine Goble Johnson, also hired to work as a “West Computer,” didn’t last long there either, being quickly loaned out to the all-male flight research team, who, according to Katherine, “forgot to return me to the pool.” Katherine’s persistence and assertiveness gained her admission to the editorial meetings meant only for the engineers. Katherine was the one who calculated the trajectory and launch window for the 1961 Mercury mission in which Alan Shepard became the first American in space. She was so highly valued by John Glenn, whose 1962 Mercury mission succeeded Shepard’s, that, even when actual electronic computers replaced the “computers who wore skirts,” as Katherine referred to them, he insisted she do all the calculations by hand to ensure the electronic computer’s accuracy.

“Spaceship-flying computers might be the future, but it didn’t mean John Glenn had to trust them. He did, however, trust the brainy fellas who controlled the computers. And the brainy fellas who controlled the computers trusted their computer, Katherine Johnson. It was as simple as eighth-grade math: by the transitive property of equality, therefore, John Glenn trusted Katherine Johnson. ‘Get the girl to check the numbers,” said the astronaut. If she says the numbers are good, he told them, I’m ready to go.’” (Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (Kindle Locations 3673-3676). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

Shetterly’s writing evokes a scene of modern day Hampton, Virginia, Langley’s hometown, its Mercury Boulevard, named for the mission they authored, no longer “conjur[ing] images of the eponymous mission that shot the first Americans beyond the atmosphere, and each day the memory of Virgil Grissom fades away from the bridge that bears his name. A downsized space program and decades of government cutbacks have hit the region hard.”

And transports us back a mere fifty years to a time when the preeminence of its space program was this nation’s focus, at the intersection of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, the ascendancy of black colleges, the McCarthy-era witch hunts directed at some of its more social-justice-oriented and Jewish engineers, and the debut of the more-electronic, less-human computer.

I am no director, but I can envision the film opening with a faded modern-day shot of Mercury Boulevard, transitioning back in time to the colorful 1961 parade along the very same route celebrating Alan Shepard’s first flight into space.

Don’t spoil it for me if I’m wrong. Let me find out for myself.

Watch the video above for the full lesson.

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