About Hidden Figures• Paperback: 368 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (December 6, 2016)
The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner.
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.
About Margot Lee ShetterlyMargot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.
I'm so happy that I agreed to be a part of this blog tour for Hidden Figures. My timing in reading it is perfect as we mourn the death of an American hero, John Glenn. After all, these are the women whose mathematical expertise and computations put him in orbit.
I love how Shetterly writes. She truly has a gift in that she's written a scholarly work that reads like a narrative because she weaves the narratives of individual women within the context of Langley's programs' history (one of my favorite sections in the book is the panicked reaction to Sputnik). I was shocked that she has no background as a historian and this is her first book.
Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia where many of the female mathematicians lived. Her father eventually became a world-renown climate scientist after joining Langley in 1964. Many of the female computers who began work during World War II were still there in the sixties. One of the ladies was even Shetterley's Sunday School teacher! Obviously her connections gave her personal anecdotes as well as access to many in the community as she conducted her research for this book. It must have been a blessing to have grown-up in a community with so many smart and talented people.
It fascinates me that these African American women computers were patriots first in spite of living under the Jim Crow laws in the South. Although I grew-up in Alabama and have heard about the Tuskegee Airmen for most of my life, this story about the African American female mathematicians is jarring. The indignities these women endured just to get to work and then have to work in the West Area at Langley (their white counterparts worked in the East) is a part of history I'd never heard before. One would think that fighting an evil like the Third Reich would trump Jim Crow laws but apparently not (although the Executive Order 8802 and the establishment of the Fair Employment Committee did open a door for these brilliant American minds). Before the war, these women could only hope to teach: Dorothy Vaughn made more than twice her high school teacher's salary at Langley. Economics aside, they dealt with many hardships and demeaning discrimination both on the job and in the community. I can't help but admire their spirit and appreciate their service to our country from the height of World War II through the Cold War.
Please read this book. Your home library needs this important story from American history.
I look forward to seeing the movie during Christmas Break, and I hope I'm not disappointed.
You can see a photo of Christine Darden and Katherine Johnson HERE on Margot Lee Shetterly's blog.