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.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.
Imagine having the talent for a job and not being able to use it. I'm not talking about being turned down for one job. I mean being turned down for any job that's not a menial position because of your gender, your ethnic heritage or the color of your skin. Society should not have been that way to begin with, but it was. What matters is that it changed and how (and if) society's rules continue to change.
Margot Lee Shetterly tells us of one such ignored and marginalized group of government employees - black women doing mathematical equations as government employees in the aeronautics industry. Originally, they would not have even been considered for such positions. Women were considered less intelligent than men and they were supposed to stay at home and tend the family, not have careers. But WWII began, and an increasing of first white, and then black men were called up into service. In order to continue the advancement of aeronautic technologies, they had to fill the gap somehow.
In came Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden and dozens like them to fill the gap. But just getting a foot in the door was far from the end of their struggles. The black women 'computers' (so-called because they did computations of mathematical equations) worked separately from their white counterparts, had to sit at a certain table in the cafeteria and could only use one restroom (that was usually far away from where they were working at the time).
I don't know how they could stand it, but I'm glad they did. I honor the struggles and sacrifices made by the women of the "West Computing" group and give kudos to Ms. Shetterly for bringing this story to light. Most or all of the US History I learned in school was about the white men who impacted history. Yes, those contributions were important ... but we do not get the whole story that way ... and that cheats us all.
Hidden Figures shows that careful and comprehensive research went into the writing thereof. Ms. Shetterly has done a great work bringing us this story from history, and I look forward to anything she might have 'in the works' at this time. I wish more people were willing to take the time necessary to bring these hidden historical gems to the light of day.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.
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(Disclaimer: I received this book free of charge from the author and HarperCollins, via TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.)