Hidden Figures: 3 “Colored Computers” Who Helped US Race into Space

By ZontaDoris

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?” 

–a Ghanaian teacher in The Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Maybe your eyes are glazing over because history is a ho-hum topic for you. Maybe you had to endure horrible K-12 history teachers who forced you to memorize dates instead of understanding how the evolution of human events formed our present. 🙂 But there’s hope for a turnaround in your attitude.

IF you are reading this blog, you must be concerned with social justice issues, especially those relating to women. Therefore, it follows that you must see the movie Hidden Figures.

It depicts aeronautics and space expansion in the late 1950s-early 1960s through the eyes and actions of three black women who started as research mathematicians–“colored computers”–at Langley Field in Virginia, later called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory; then NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; and who continued working at NASA–National Aeronautics and Space Administration as space mathematicians (Johnson), computer scientists (Vaughan), and in Mary Jackson’s case, as an engineer and women’s advocate.

Hidden Figures presents the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Winston Jackson with dignity and respect, yet makes their professional journeys as black women brilliantly pursuing careers as mathematicians and engineers in a white male-dominated era and setting engaging and understandable. Still not convinced? Watch the Hidden Figures trailer below.

The Hidden Figures screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi was based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. I read the book after seeing the movie. The movie conveys the racism and sexism that these women had to overcome to advance in their field. The book offers a much more extended timeline and context for their halting steps forward. Here are a few things from Shetterly’s excellent history to keep in mind for the movie as you see them progress in their work at NASA in Virginia.

The professional road was uphill all the way. The three women went to black K-12 schools and colleges because of segregation. Upon graduating with mathematics degrees, their professional route to work was through teaching at the K-12 level.  Their salaries were significantly less than salaries paid to their white counterparts (which in Virginia, were already in the bottom quarter of salaries of teachers across the country!). Sometimes the schools would run out of funds to pay teachers for the full year.

In spite of her talented cost-cutting measures to conserve family expenditures, Dorothy Vaughan had to work in a military laundry sorting soldiers’ clothes for washing during the Summer break to supplement her family’s income for raising four children. Her husband worked seasonally as a bellman at luxury hotels in Florida, New York, Vermont, and at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. His parents took care of their children when Dorothy and Howard had to work far from home.

Teachers’ working conditions were onerous, often in outdated facilities designed to house half the number of students actually attending them and with textbooks discarded by the white schools. Too few classrooms, no gymnasium, lockers, or cafeteria is what Dorothy Vaughan had to cope with in her last year of teaching in 1943 when she earned $850. When she was selected as a Mathematician, Grade P-1 at Langley Field, her pay jumped to $2,000 a year.

To show how unusual Vaughan’s vault to a mathematician role at the Langley Lab was in 1943, about 10 years before the movie starts its story with the assignment of Katherine Johnson to the Flight Research Division, Shetterly outlines the hierarchy of blacks’ work opportunities.

There were black jobs, and there were good black jobs. Sorting in the laundry, making beds in white folks’ houses, stemming in the tobacco plant–those were black jobs. Owning a barbershop or a funeral home, working in the post office, or riding the rails as a Pullman porter–those were good black jobs. Teacher, preacher, doctor, lawyer, now those were very good black jobs, bringing stability and the esteem that accompanied formal training.

But the job at the aeronautical laboratory was something new, something so unusual it hadn’t yet entered the collective dreams.

The higher education path was bouldered with impediments. Smart young black women and men in the 1930s faced many barriers to post-college study including admission policies that barred them from entering white professional schools. NAACP won two Supreme Court cases before the situation started to change in most states (1936–Murray v. Pearson and 1938–Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada)

Even though the Supreme court ruled in favor of black graduate students, Virginia continued to disobey the law up until 1950. West Virginia, in contrast, did not fight integration in its graduate schools thereby making it possible for Katherine Johnson to start her graduate math studies at West Virginia University in the summer of 1940.

Virginia continued to resist federal efforts in public schools to desegregate following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, KS decision by the Supreme Court. Local officials with the state’s backing even closed public schools in some counties for up to five years rather than open them to black students. Vestiges of these policies are evident in the movie when Mary Jackson has to get the local judge’s permission to take advanced engineer-in-training college-extension classes at the local whites-only high school in the evening hours.

WW II and Sputnik created opportunities for black women and men. The need for faster, more efficient, and more specialized planes during the war meant that the “terrifically complex bundle of physics” had to be “tweaked to serve the needs of different situations.” Langley Laboratory hired black mathematicians to help shape new designs for plane manufacturers to build the customized planes faster than ever before. In fact, Shetterly reported that the “American aircraft industry …[leaped] from the country’s forty-third largest industry in 1938 to the world’s number one industry by 1943.”

Black men fought in the war, mainly on the ground, and in the air as the famous Tuskegee airmen, also called the “Tan Yanks” by the black press, to great success. Although almost every tenth American soldier in WW II was black, their service to the country wasn’t enough to stop the racist treatment and blatant discrimination the black GIs experienced after the war. However, they didn’t give up and continued to press for their full rights of democracy.

Once the Soviets put up Sputnik in October 1957, “the United States found itself trailing technologically during a world of rising international tension.” While President Eisenhower almost stood alone in viewing Sputnik as an innocuous “small ball in the air,” American policy makers AND most citizens worried about intercontinental ballistic missiles and atomic weapons aimed at the American continent. Yet as a Norfolk Journal and Guide columnist pointed out: “How can Senator Byrd [a staunch segregationist] and Congressman Hardy be so distressed one minute about our lagging behind the Russians in our missile program and the next minute advocate closing the schools in Virginia?” Smart scientists and mathematicians–of all races–were needed to close the missile gap.

Negotiating segregation must-nots and can-nots was constant, dangerous, and required uncommon courage and strength to persevere. The movie focuses mostly on the injustices at Langley, where anyone of our three sheroes could have been confused with a cleaning lady but Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson and their children had to enter, exit, and sit in the back of public buses. They could only seek food and lodging from those who would serve them, sometimes in private homes, by people who might need their hospitality reciprocated some day. I’ve already mentioned the obstacles they faced to public and higher education and career progression. These professional women also faced discrimination in where they could live and buy good homes with reasonable financing. Their black male colleagues and partners in life had to be even more cautious in just walking down the street.

Yet each woman prevailed because of her brilliance, persistence, and refusal to be discounted or isolated because of her race. Her social networks–extended family and friends, sorority, children’s schools and church–also helped her succeed.

February is Black History Month. Google explains the history of Black History Month. See Hidden Figures. Learn and be proud, as Amelia Earhart would be, of how three women leaned-in many hours a day for decades to make our national aeronautics and space programs succeed. 

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Pictures of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson taken from their Wikipedia profiles.

Views expressed in this blog post are mine and may not reflect the stance of the Zonta Club of Pinellas County or Zonta International. — Doris Reeves-Lipscomb