Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.
Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.
Stories like those of the women in the early years of NASA – who performed calculations that were literally out-of-this-world while curtailed by both sexism and segregation – have been largely forgotten.
That is, until now.
Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly’s exhaustively-researched book, and recently made into a highly acclaimed movie of the same name changes all that.
In Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.
I had no idea that black women played such a key role in our space program. It’s great to finally acknowledge those who contributed so much – and received so little credit for their work. Hidden Figures tells the story of four determined black women, who overcame numerous obstacles, and worked in the space program at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now known as Langley Research Center.) It was at this Virginia lab where Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were able to employ their skills – and really make a difference. It was behind the scenes work back then – but now we know the real picture. To give the reader an idea of how difficult it was for a woman – much less an African-American woman – to actually become a mathematician, the author notes these statistics: “In the 1930s, just over a hundred women worked as professional mathematicians.” The likelihood of a black woman actually becoming a mathematician working on the space program was about zero: “Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees. The odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.”
Oddly, the Soviet Union actively encouraged women in engineering. The schools in the Soviet Union were “loaded with women” including many of their engineering grads. Alas – that was not the case in the United States, which struggled to find a place for women and Negroes in its science workplace, and in society at large. At the time, women generally received little credit for their work. It was unusual for a woman to even be acknowledged as co-author of a report. The work of most of the women, like that of the computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. At the lab, life for black women was not quite as bad as outside, where strict rules were followed, with blacks always separate from whites. At Langley, the boundaries were fuzzier. Blacks were ghettoed into separate bathrooms, but they had also been given an unprecedented entrée into the professional world. At Langley, the work was serious; lives were at stake. Sending a man into space was a damn tall order, but it was that part about returning him safely to Earth that kept Katherine Johnson and the rest of the space pilgrims awake at night. Recall that the United States did not yet have a track record of successful space launches. In fact, many launches were complete failures. Two of the Atlas’s last five sallies had ended in failure. One of them had surged into the sky, erupting into spectacular fireballs with the capsule still attached. That was not exactly a confidence builder for the man preparing to ride it into orbit.
Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes: “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.”
In the introduction to her book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly relays what it was like to grow up as a black girl in Hampton, Virginia, where most of her community worked at the nearby Langley NASA research center.
“I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did,” Shetterly, whose father was employed at NASA as an engineer, writes. “Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”
Some of those brown faces belonged to women, even in times long before it was normal for women to work outside the home. Before electronic computers made the job obsolete, the synapses powering the math behind the breakthroughs in this field belonged to women known as “computers,” meaning simply “one who computes.”
But what Shetterly saw as the norm as a child likely comes as a surprise to most Americans today. In Silicon Valley, physics laboratories, and university classrooms – and particularly in popular media and imagination – the face of the research designed to propel America to the future is still disproportionately male, and often quite white. Stereotypes about “brogrammer culture” and inherent differences in mathematical ability dissuade women, particularly women of color, from technological fields.
February has, in recent decades, been Black History Month. I hope the organizers include these NASA “computer” women and show America we would not have made it into space and back, to the moon and back, without the beautiful and amazing minds of these dedicated and talented women math masters. The STEM efforts (STEM, previously SMET is an acronym that refers to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) should be linked to this as well. And we should remain mindful that the linkage between music and math is very strong and that few blacks end up encouraged to pursue math if they show some talent in music.
I kept thinking about the book and movie Hidden Figures. These women were educated engineers and mathematicians – one a prodigy with an extraordinary capacity for calculating numbers and theorems in her head. When astronaut John Glenn prepared to become the first American to orbit the Earth, calculations for his re-entry into the atmosphere require an urgent adjustment. Glenn knew whom to ask for: “the smart one,” he says of Katherine Johnson. Sure enough, she gets it exactly right.
Yet for all her skill and talent – for all her genius – Johnson and the other black women are routinely subjected to humiliation and insults, to the condescension and cruelty that were the common lot of black Americans when “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs – and burly state troopers enforcing Jim Crow laws – maintained strict segregation between the races.
Despite several white restrooms in the NASA control center where she worked, whenever nature called Johnson had to run half a mile to the colored bathroom in another building. She was the only black and the sole woman among an all-white team who would not even allow her to share the coffee machine. When she was called out for taking such lengthy breaks, her suppressed anguish at the second-class treatment suddenly erupted. You can feel her pain.
While her friend Dorothy Vaughan oversaw thirty or more black “computers,” as the women officially were identified, she was consistently and rudely denied the title and pay of white supervisors. Mary Jackson was barred from attending engineering courses at the town’s all-white school until a judge reluctantly agreed she could attend – the night class. Somehow these women survived the malice, meanness and pervasive oppression of everyday life to carry on successful lives with dignity intact.
Bill Moyers relates: “Washington, DC in the mid-’60s glowed with pride over America’s besting of the Soviets up in the heavens, and there I got to know NASA Administrator Jim Webb. I attended meetings on space policy over which he presided, shared in moments of celebration at the agency’s successes and relished his boisterous remembrances of the first thrilling but precarious days of the space program. I never heard these women mentioned. There were no shout-outs to them, no newspaper features, no official recognition. They were swallowed back into anonymity and invisibility – into the suffocating holding pen that was American apartheid.
“The civil rights movement was then beginning to gain force, a power that would bring change, and at the end of Hidden Figures, we see photographs of the real women and learn they finally earned recognition through intelligence, skill and hard work. As we left the theater we saw tear-stained faces throughout the auditorium, and we ran into several friends who had unabashedly wept both in joy for the three women and their “ultimate triumph,” as one said, and in sadness at ‘the long neglect through which they had to pass.’
“I thought again of those photographs later that evening during the Golden Globe Awards, when Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV series Black-ish dedicated her award “for all of the women, women of color and colorful people, whose stories, ideas, thoughts are not always considered worthy, and valid and important. But I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”
We see you.
Which brings us to Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III.
If he could, Jeff Sessions, the President-Elect’s nominee for Attorney General, would take back all the racial progress made up to now. Now he will at last have the chance to turn the clock back, which is why Donald Trump chose him. I watched Sessions feint and evade during the hearings and thought what an insult his appointment is to a half-century of history in which the civil rights movement helped end overt oppression and won for Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson, Darden, and countless others the standing and recognition they earned and deserved as citizens.
So much struggle and sacrifice over the years, so many burned churches, mutilated bodies, ticking bombs and bloodshed – so much venomous human behavior before America finally began to get it right. Racism still remains a powerful toxic stream flowing through American life.
Too many people are still unseen.
Through his career as a prosecutor in Alabama and as a United States senator, Jeff Sessions has done what he could to frustrate the gains of all the “hidden figures” among us by attempting to disenfranchise or suppress their votes.
He called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “an intrusion” before cynically voting to reauthorize it and then quickly signing on to a Republican effort to undermine it.
When the conservative Supreme Court eventually gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Sessions said it was “good news… for the South.”
Since then he has championed voter-ID laws and remained indifferent as Republican state legislatures undertook a massive campaign of repression against black voters.
In the 1980s, he prosecuted civil rights activists on dubious charges – behavior that when coupled with an allegation that he had called a black colleague “boy,” cost him a Reagan-era appointment as a federal judge.
The NAACP, which Sessions once called “un-American,” describes his record on voting rights as “unreliable at best and hostile at worst,” and also notes “a failing record on other civil rights; a record of racially offensive remarks and behavior; and [a] dismal record on criminal justice reform issues.”
And he opposed reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
Benign in manner, soft of voice but hard at the core, Jeff Sessions is the perfect figurehead for the resurgent white nationalists who now aim not to make history but to reverse it – by a hundred years or more if they can. This is the man to whom Donald Trump is handing the enforcement of our laws from civil and voting rights to environmental protection, antitrust enforcement, housing, employment and all the rest.
Expect new laws, but little justice, and be vigilant as America’s shadows become ever more crowded with hidden figures of every shade.