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'Hidden Figures': Meet the black, female math whizzes of the space race

HAMPTON, Va. — Growing up here in the 1970s, in the shadow of Langley Research Center, where workers helped revolutionize air flight and put Americans on the moon, Margot Lee Shetterly had a pretty fixed idea of what scientists looked like: They were middle class, African-American and worked at NASA, like her dad.

It would be years before she learned that this was far from the American norm. And that many women in her hometown defied convention, too, by having vibrant, and by most standards, unusual careers.

Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.

Four of them are the subjects of Shetterly's first book, Hidden Figures, a history being released Tuesday by William Morrow. The book garnered an early burst of attention because its movie version, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, is scheduled for a year-end release and set for an Oscars run. The movie rights were snapped up weeks after Shetterly sold her book proposal in 2014, and well before she started writing the book in earnest, a disorientingly fast, if exhilarating, turn.

"The thrilling thing to me about the book, and the movie, is this is an American story that we're getting to see through the faces of these women," Shetterly said during a recent visit to Hampton, which sits on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, surrounded by aquamarine waters and Navy ships. "It's just as American a story as if it were John Glenn or Alan Shepard telling it."

Shetterly happened upon the idea for the book six years ago, when she and her husband, Aran Shetterly, then living in Mexico, were visiting her parents here. The couple and Shetterly's father were driving around in his minivan when he mentioned, very casually, that one of Shetterly's former Sunday school teachers had worked as a mathematician at NASA, and that another woman she knew calculated rocket trajectories for famous astronauts.

Shetterly remembers her husband perking up and asking why he had never heard this tale before. "I knew women who worked at NASA as mathematicians and engineers," Shetterly said, "but it took someone from the outside saying, 'Wait a minute' for me to see the story there."

Two of the women she would focus on are still living in the area. Christine Darden, now 73 and retired, had worked her way out of NASA's computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms. Katherine Johnson, who recently turned 98, lives in a retirement home with her husband of 57 years, James A. Johnson, and is enjoying a recent surge of fame. She calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, and last year President Barack Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life's work.

Darden and Katherine Johnson still socialize, and on a recent summer day, made meltingly hot by a heat wave, met to play bridge at Johnson's apartment. (Johnson and her partner won.) Shetterly was visiting too, and presented both women with an early copy of her book.

"Fantastic," Darden said, as Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.

Yet asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Henson, in the starring role, Johnson became solemn. (Darden is not portrayed on screen, as the film focuses on the years preceding her arrival at NASA.)

"I shudder," Johnson said. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts, and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. "I was never aggressive," Johnson said.

Shetterly reminded Johnson of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. "You took matters in your own hands," Shetterly said. "For other women, it was a revelation."

Johnson said: "Well, I don't ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, 'Is there a law?' And he said, 'Let her go.' It was easier than arguing."

Listening in, one of Johnson's health aides chuckled. "Yep," he said, "That's the Katherine Johnson I know."

Though outwardly their stories are remarkable, both Darden and Johnson remained matter-of-fact when describing their careers, an attitude that seems to have prevailed among their peers.

Ann Hammond, whose mother, Dorothy Vaughan, was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98, and is played in the film by Octavia Spencer.

"My mother would've probably said, 'I was just doing my job,'" Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.

But what jobs they were. While military budget cuts and sequestration have hurt the economy here in recent decades, some 75 years ago the hungry wartime machine needed manpower, and womanpower, to fill its depleted ranks. This helped open the door for black female mathematicians, who were recruited through job bulletin boards and newspaper ads. Their job title? "Colored computers."

Johnson, a math savant, graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University at 18, and heard about the job through a family connection. Darden, who went to college at Hampton Institute and earned a master's degree in math at Virginia State College, was hired to be a NASA data analyst out of graduate school in 1967, and went on to become an aerospace engineer.

The military boom lasted for decades, allowing the women and their families to have what Hammond described as a good life, despite enduring the indignities of segregation in the early years — working, eating and using restrooms apart from white colleagues.

Shetterly discovered in her research that the space agency's leaders were well aware of the negative effects of segregation. As Virginia began vigorously fighting public school desegregation in 1956, one higher up worried about the face that the United States, with its roiling racial problems, was presenting to the world, using words that still have resonance today.

"In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country," NACA's chief counsel, Paul Dembling, wrote in a file memo that year. Two years later, the segregated computing pool was disbanded.

Through it all, by most accounts, the black women at NASA held their heads high.

"Her whole life, my mother never felt superior and never felt less than anybody else," said Joylette Hylick, the eldest of Johnson's three daughters. "She didn't let it get in her way."

'Hidden Figures': Meet the black, female math whizzes of the space race 09/06/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2016 7:41am]
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