The true story of "Hidden Figures" Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a "celestial training device." (NASA)
The true story of "Hidden Figures"
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As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater. It spurred a demand for mathematicians.
 
Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers. Their work enabled the engineers to be free of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.
 
Many of these "computers" are finally getting their due. But noticeably 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. Her book is "Hidden Figures." It shines light on the inner details of these women's lives and accomplishments. The book's film adaptation is now in theaters. It stars Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson.
 
"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.
 
Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1970s, Shetterly lived just miles away from Langley. Built in 1917, this 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, although 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. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong. Few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941, when A. Philip Randolph, a pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington. It was to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802. It 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, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern. He became a well-respected climate scientist.
 
It took decades for Shetterly to realize the greatness of the women's work.
 
Shetterly began researching these women. Few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. As soon as marriage or children arrived, these women would retire to become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only remained at Langley for a few years.
 
But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she discovered.
 
She scoured telephone directories, newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names.
 
"Just today I got an email from a woman, asking 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. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.
 
One computer, Miriam Mann, took on responding to the affront. She made it her own personal battle. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the 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, against separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings. It was these small battles and daily minutiae that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. And outside of the workplace, they faced many more problems. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory that helped alleviate the shortage of housing. But the black computers were left to their own devices.
 
The book and movie don't mark the end of Shetterly's work.  She continues to collect these names, hoping 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."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did these women need courage?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (354)
  • jasminec1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:11 p.m.

    These women needed courage because many people did not like black people at the time. These women fought small battles against having separate bathrooms and restricted access from meetings. One black woman named Miriam Mann took a sign that said colored computers off a table because she felt like she was being treated unfairly. Eventually the sign that said colored computers was gone. All of these women needed courage to do all of these brave things.

    • matthewm-kul
      3/06/2017 - 01:58 p.m.

      I agree because it took a lot of courage for those women to do things like this and they were treated very unfairly.

  • akalsukhb1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:12 p.m.

    These women need courage because they were getting discriminated against. These women used their courage to fight for their rights. If these women didn't use courage they might've gotten discriminated against even more. These women needed courage to stand up for themselves to get same rights as other people. The people who were discriminating these women were trying to get attention. Everybody should have equal rights. There should equality in USA.

  • kruthid1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:12 p.m.

    The woman needed courage because without that they would have been silent during all the racial discrimination happened around them. Also, the woman need courage because if they didn't have any courage, they wouldn't have able to, for example, take off the sign that said, "Colored Computers". They also wouldn't have been able to stop the separate bathrooms or restricted access to meetings. These woman need courage because without it they wouldn't have been able do all the amazing things they did, that not many people today would even think of doing.

    • claireb1-dix
      2/21/2017 - 11:36 a.m.

      Yes the do need courage.

  • nathank-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:13 p.m.

    These woman need courage because being the first African-American woman computers to work at NASA(NACA) is a great honor and in order to do this, these woman need courage. Also, like said in the article, these woman had trouble outside of their jobs. These woman had to find homes that were open to African-Americans which took a lot of courage. Being the first black woman to work at NASA was probably tough for the obstacles they had to overcome which is where they need courage. This is why I think these woman need courage

  • annc-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:14 p.m.

    Even though the black women were helping NASA, the white people still told the women that they had to go to different devices. Therefore, the black computers needed courage because they were being treated unfairly just because they were black. They had to stand up for themselves, and that took lots of courage. This article taught me that in the early days, black computers didn't have it easy, and they had to use their courage to press on.

  • rylieh-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:15 p.m.

    These women needed courage because they wanted to do what was right for example, In the article it said "West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers One computer, Miriam Mann, took on responding to the affront. She made it her own personal battle. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again." She thought this was right so she did it. Other people disagreed though. they had to have courage to do this stuff.

  • kyanm1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:16 p.m.

    The women needed courage because during those times not that many African American people were offered a job. So applying for the job would make them the first African American women workers for NACA. They also needed courage when things went wrong on the space ship everybody was counting on her to fix it, or calculate what went wrong on the ship. Also going back to not many African American were offered job, and before this there was discrimination. So they had to step up the plate and do there thing. That is why they need courage.

  • aaravc-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:19 p.m.

    These women needed courage because Shetterly was taking decades to understand the greatness of women's work.Also without these women the men can't do everything there selves.Plus it is not that women can't do what men can do women and men can do the same things if they try.Finally about 1992 women worked at NACA.

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