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 an insatiable 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, freeing the engineers 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 conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, 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, "Hidden Figures," shines light on the inner details of these women's lives and accomplishments. The book's film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is now 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.
 
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), which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be 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, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making 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 and 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 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, preventing 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) over the years is still unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred. Other estimates, including Shetterly's own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.
 
As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her Girl Scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates. Her father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern and becoming a well-respected climate scientist.
 
It took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude 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 particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as her own personal vendetta. 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.
 
But 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, 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 (10)
  • Richie-stol
    2/20/2017 - 04:22 p.m.

    Because there was a brink of a second world war and their was a lot depending on them

    • Richie-stol
      2/20/2017 - 04:36 p.m.

      There

    • lillyr-pet
      2/27/2017 - 10:32 a.m.

      There was a lot depending on them and they needed to help. I totally agree Richie-stol.

  • maddiem3-har
    2/22/2017 - 08:18 p.m.

    These women needed courage because this was a time of racism and sexism. This presented two obstacles for them to overcome.The African-American women had a great task of having to be a "human computer" and make calculations for NACA later known as (NASA). The women performed a high-stress job during a high-stress time in history.

  • lillyr-pet
    2/27/2017 - 10:30 a.m.

    These women need courage because this was new to them and they didn't know what to do. They needed to have courage to do what men did when they were in the war. It also was very hard when they had to learn something new.

  • morganb-bru
    2/28/2017 - 01:55 p.m.

    The true story of "Hidden Figures" displays how bold women during the age of cruel sexism and racism displayed courage to battle their way to equal rights. The courage black woman possessed to even set foot at Langley in 1940 in the first place was massive and was the first leap towards fair treatment. In particular, Miriam Mann took a colossal risk and removed a discriminating sign that read "colored computers," day after day until eventually she was victorious and the sign was permanently eliminated. Many women had so much belief in their cause, they even rebelled against their bosses to gain access to segregated meetings and even bathrooms! Even as these confident woman were challenged with cruel injustice, they pushed on using courage which led to their much earned success.

  • loganr2-bru
    2/28/2017 - 02:01 p.m.

    All of the segregated "computers" had courage. They needed this courage to thrive in the workplace. The west computers were a group of African American woman who were segregated at work. They were often put down by their second class issues. One western computer, Miriam Mann, took matters into her own hand. Someone had put up a sign that had stated colored computers and she had taken it down on multiple occasions. Finally though, the mystery person who kept reconstructing the sign, had given up and stopped putting the sign up.These women have used courage in their workplace until they were treated equal.

  • braedonb-bru
    3/03/2017 - 09:05 p.m.

    In the true story of "Hidden Figures", these "black computers" needed courage for many reasons. These women where working for NACA (NASA) calculating angles for space shuttles. Unfortunately, they where being segregated at their jobs doing something that was supporting the country's space program. The tables, restrooms, and other things where segregated. For example, one women kept grabbing a sign off a table and putting it in her purse. This sign was put back and she grabbed it again this went on for a long time but she finally won and it disappeared. Many more of this battles went on and they won them. Amazingly, these women showed courage under the pressure of losing everything and they where unfortunately called "black computers."

  • mayannay-smi
    3/20/2017 - 09:00 p.m.

    These women needed courage because everyone needs courage weather they are the best at anything they need courage to stay that way and to not give these girls a hard time because they had a lot of work on their hands. For example, a lot of people had to tolerate black people so they knew that they didn't fit in but people realized that they were important. As you can see the courage helped a lot, just like it helps everyone else.

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