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As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical progress grew. It spurred a demand for mathematicians.
Women were the solution. They were ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching. They acted as human computers. Their work allowed the engineers to be free of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. These women were sharp and successful. And the female population at Langley skyrocketed.
Many of these "computers" are finally getting their due. But visibly missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. They were called the West Computers. The name was taken after the area to which they were relegated. They helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.
"These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary," says Margot Lee Shetterly. She is an author. She wrote "Hidden Figures." The book shines light on the inner details of these women's lives and accomplishments. The book was made into a movie. It stars Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson. It now is in theaters.
"We've had astronauts. We've had engineers . . . John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft," she says. "Those guys have all told their stories." Now it's the women's turn.
Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia. This was in the 1970s. She lived just miles away from Langley. The facility was built in 1917. The research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Its purpose was to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958. It was replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) as the space race gained speed.
The West Computers were at the heart of the center's advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane. The computers would run the numbers often. But they frequently had no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines. Their calculations helped make them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects. Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight. Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s. Technological advances had made their roles obsolete.
The first black computers didn't set foot at Langley until the 1940s. The pressing needs of war were great. But racial discrimination remained strong. Few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was true until 1941. A. Philip Randolph was a pioneering civil rights activist. He proposed a march on Washington to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. The threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802. The order prevented racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history.
Exactly how many women computers worked at NACA (and later NASA) is unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred. Other estimates, including Shetterly's own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.
Shetterly's father worked at Langley as well. He started in 1964. He began as an engineering intern. He became a well-respected climate scientist.
It took decades for Shetterly to realize the scale of the women's work.
Shetterly began researching these women. She found that few of these women were recognized for their work. As soon as marriage or children arrived, the women would retire. They often would become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only stayed at Langley for a few years.
But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she found. She scoured telephone directories and newspapers. She searched employee newsletters and the NASA archives. These helped her add to her growing list of names.
"Just today I got an email from a woman. (She asked) if I was still searching for computers. (She) had worked at Langley from July 1951 through August 1957."
Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering.
"In many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory," Shetterly says. The researchers came from across America. Many came from parts of the country sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement.
But life at Langley wasn't just the churn of greased gears. The women were rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts. And the West Computers also lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident. It involved an offensive sign in the dining room. The sign read: Colored Computers.
One computer was Miriam Mann. She decided to respond to the affront. She made it her own personal goal. She took the sign from the table. Then she tucked it away in her purse. When another sign returned, she removed it again.
"That was incredible courage," says Shetterly.
Eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.
The women fought many more of these seemingly small battles. They included fighting against separate bathrooms for races. And to gain access to restricted meetings. It was these small battles that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. Outside of the workplace, the women faced many more problems. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall. It was a dormitory that helped ease the shortage of housing. But the black computers were left to their own devices.
Shetterly continues to collect these names. She hopes to eventually make the list available online.
The few West Computers whose names have been remembered, have become nearly mythical figures. It is a side effect of the few African-American names celebrated in mainstream history, Shetterly argues.
"Not just mythology but the actual facts," she says. "Because the facts are truly spectacular."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did these women need courage?
Write your answers in the comments section below