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 (355)
  • ellad1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:21 p.m.

    The reason these women needed courage is because if they didn't have courage they probably wouldn't work at NACA (NASA). Another reason why these women needed courage is because if they didn't have courage they wouldn't be able to show to the world that it doesn't matter what gender you are, anyone can be smart. One woman who showed a lot of courage was Miriam Mann. The reason why that shows courage is because if she didn't do that, maybe no one would stand up for equal rights and men would still over power women!

  • nicholasa-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:22 p.m.

    These women needed courage because they are working in a different building then the white people and that they do not get the things that they deserve. The colored people did not want to be treated like they did so they fought against it. For example, Miriam Mann one of the colored computers was fed up with the things that the whites were doing to them. She started taking the signs from the table and putting them in her purse until the whites finally stropped trying to fight against having the signs. Finally Miriam Mann won and there was no sign there any more. This show that she had courage and stepped up and started fighting against the whites and made it so they were not separated with the whites and got treated better then they did before. Little things like that can do amazing things. The computers at NACA were stepping up for the rights that the colored should get. This also shows that colored people have the ability to do things that whites can do to.

  • madeleineb1-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:24 p.m.

    The women needed courage to complete their task to use their mathematical thinking to make rockets at NACA. One woman from NACA named Miriam Mann, went to a table and she saw an offensive sign that said "Color Computers". She used her courage to remove the sign and sat. When Miriam Mann saw the sign again, she removed the sign again. Courage isn't only for work, courage can be used anytime or anywhere.

  • matthewk-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:25 p.m.

    These women needed courage because back in 1935 (when these women were, as the article stated, "ushered" into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory) racial discrimination and discriminating against women was common. So, many people didn't want them working at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. Also not only did people not want them to work at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, but, they thought they couldn't do the job just because they are African American Women. Finally they needed enough courage to know that even though they did very important amazing things sadly, they would be recognized for it.

  • avnik-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:29 p.m.

    These women needed courage because they needed to stand up to what they thought was right. They were being treated unfairly just because of their gender and their color of their skin. If these women didn't have courage women would still be treated unfairly today. Women such as Miriam Mann wouldn't stop fighting this racial discrimination until they won. These powerful women wouldn't stay silent and let themselves be treated unfairly, so they used their courage to stand up to racial discrimination.

  • davidl-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:31 p.m.

    The women needed courage to build the flying machines in war times. They were like computers and did a lot of calculations. It was really hard but they finished the job of building the flying machines. Their was not a single black computer on Langley. Well not in tell the 1940's. Then after they finished their job women kept on fighting for other rights.

  • cadinl-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:32 p.m.

    These women needed courage so that they could work at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory because there was a lot of discrimination.So they needed courage to stand up against it.One thing they did against discrimination was take down signs saying Colored Computers. If they hadn't been courageous then they wouldn't have gotten their rights.

  • zoed-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:35 p.m.

    Even though these women where smart, they needed courage to get through their days in NACA. At the time, black and colored women where segregated, making it hard through out the day. These women needed courage because they had to go to different meetings and they had to use different devices. One woman kept on taking a sine that she didn't like. That is what I call courage. Women didn't get to go into the same bathroom at work. Those are only a few ways women needed courage.

  • matthewb2-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:38 p.m.

    These woman need courage because they worked in a building where white people were working in and they did not get things that they deserve. Also these woman used courage to fight for their rights. Plus woman didn't get do things that men did.

  • andrewl-lin
    2/17/2017 - 02:43 p.m.

    These women need courage because they would be the first African-American to work at NACA. "We've had astronauts we've had engineers... John Glenn , Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft, those guys told their stories, now it's women's turn." The African-American women would've needed enough courage to take off that sign and other things to make them accomplish other things that have been good to them. In the end, these people have become known as "hidden figures", their story has become famous in many ways.

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