The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, visits her parents in Hampton, VA, where she grew up. Shetterly’s father recalls that “a lot of the women around here, black and white, worked as computers [mathematicians]” at NASA’s Langley Research Center, which causes Shetterly to remember what it was like to grow up in a community full of black scientists and engineers.
Although Shetterly grew up next door to the Langley Research Center, where several history-making events in race and gender relations took place, even she knew very little of the truth about Langley’s segregationist history. In displaying her own ignorance about the facts of Langley’s history, Shetterly puts herself in a position similar to the reader.
Shetterly once spent her days off from school at her father’s office at the Langley Research Center. They would visit the other engineers in their cubicles, many of whom had brown skin like Shetterly, which she never found remarkable. She writes, “growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.” Shetterly’s father, Robert Benjamin Lee III, worked at Langley for forty years before retiring as an internationally respected climate scientist. Many of his friends and family followed the same career trajectory, and Shetterly grew up in the midst of a community of middle-class black intellectuals and professionals, which gave her, as a black child, “previously unimaginable access to American society.”
As Shetterly begins to ask more and more questions, and more facts become clear, the true range of Langley’s hidden history in regards to race relations reveals itself, both to Shetterly and to her audience. She also suggests the personal importance of growing up around successful black professionals, which will be true of all the women in the book.
Shetterly realizes that the community of black scientists and mathematicians at Langley—and particularly the black women—have important, untold stories. “The idea that black women,” she writes, “had been recruited to work as mathematicians at the NASA installation in the South during the days of segregation defies our expectations and challenges much of what we think we know about American history.” In light of this, Shetterly decides to interview the women who laid the groundwork for Langley’s integration, including Katherine Johnson. In Langley’s archives, she finds the names of around fifty black women who worked as mathematicians for the space program, starting when it was not called NASA, but rather the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA). She notes that, while these black women are the least well-known workers at Langley, there are also many white women who labored in the shadows alongside them.
Shetterly lays out the groundwork for her exploratory journey clearly, explaining the far-reaching and detailed investigation she will undertake to find the truth about Langley’s history. She also lays out the stakes of the book: the fact that black women contributed significantly to the space program is so counterintuitive to the way most people understand American history that she hopes her book will shake people’s assumptions about what roles black Americans have played in history.
Shetterly’s interest in the NACA’s hidden figures becomes an obsession. She wants to memorialize their accomplishments in a way that won’t be lost to history, giving them the kind of epic narrative previously only granted to figures like the Wright Brothers, Alexander Hamilton, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Shetterly’s desire to raise the NACA’s forgotten black computers to the status of some of U.S. history’s most well-known icons again sets out the parameters of her investigation, alerting readers to the breadth and depth of the story she intends to tell.
Shetterly’s hometown today looks like any other town in America. It is no longer segregated and the WHITES ONLY signs are gone. The space program has been downsized, which means that ambitious, scientifically-minded college graduates no longer stick around to work at Langley. Instead, they head to Silicon Valley or Washington D.C. But once upon a time, Shetterly recalls, Hampton was the center of the universe for a certain type of mathematically inclined African American woman who wanted a chance to use her skills to change the world.
Hampton, VA has both lost and gained since the period during and after WWII. Overt segregation no longer exists, but the merit-based opportunities that its science-based aerospace program offered to African-Americans are gone, too. In some ways, by becoming “like any other town,” its uniqueness, and the uniqueness of the people who worked there, have been lost.