Hidden Figures

by

Margot Lee Shetterly

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“COLORED” Signs Symbol Analysis

“COLORED” Signs Symbol Icon

Throughout the offices at Langley are signs indicating where black employees are and are not allowed to go. These signs segregate bathrooms and lunch tables, and they are a stark symbol of the inequality and oppression that the black computers at the NACA suffer while doing their jobs serving the United States government and military. When, in 1940, Miriam Mann (a member of the first generation of black computers) steals the “Colored Computers” sign and puts it in her purse, and then continues to steal it until the sign stops reappearing, what she’s really doing is allowing the black women at the NACA to begin to regain some of their dignity in the face of the prejudice and discrimination they encounter daily. Her nonviolent, persistent action mirrors the sit-ins and protests that will characterize the Civil Rights movement throughout the South into the second half of the twentieth century. Afterwards, the black computers continue to eat at a separate table, but the removal of the sign marks the removal of a silent but constant reminder that the they are considered inferior by their colleagues, not good enough to eat at the same table or share the same bathrooms with white women. Mann’s small act of rebellion, therefore, turns out to be a small step in the battle for equality for all black men and women, not just those who have achieved a certain status, or who have the confidence to break the rules. Later, chief officials at the NACA remove the “Colored” signs from the bathrooms, marking the point when true integration at the NACA finally begins.

“COLORED” Signs Quotes in Hidden Figures

The Hidden Figures quotes below all refer to the symbol of “COLORED” Signs. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the William Morrow Paperbacks edition of Hidden Figures published in 2016.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The black female mathematicians who walked into Langley in 1943 would find themselves at the intersection of…great transformations, their sharp minds and ambitions contributing to what the United States would consider one of its greatest victories. But in 1943, America existed in the urgent present. Responding to the needs of the here and now Butler took the next step, making a note to add another item to Sherwood’s seemingly endless requisition list: a metal bathroom sign bearing the words Colored Girls.

Related Symbols: “COLORED” Signs
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

At some point during the war, the colored computers sign disappeared into Miriam Mann’s purse and never came back. The separate office remained, as did the segregated bathrooms, but in the Battle of the West Area Cafeteria, the unseen hand had been forced to concede victory to its petite but relentless adversary… Miriam Mann's insistence on sending the humiliating sign to oblivion gave her and the other women of west computing just a little more room for dignity and the confidence that the laboratory might belong to them as well.

Related Characters: Miriam Mann
Related Symbols: “COLORED” Signs
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

Compared to the white girls, she came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president. She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom . . . In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being.

Related Characters: Mary Jackson
Related Symbols: “COLORED” Signs
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
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“COLORED” Signs Symbol Timeline in Hidden Figures

The timeline below shows where the symbol “COLORED” Signs appears in Hidden Figures. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: A Door Opens
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress Theme Icon
...Laboratory without fanfare. He does, however, affix a metal sign to a bathroom that reads COLORED. (full context)
Chapter 5: Manifest Destiny
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress Theme Icon
...cafeteria after this speech, West Computers have to sit together at lunch. A white cardboard sign reading COLORED COMPUTERS marks their table. The black women have had to learn to accept things like this,... (full context)
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Community  Theme Icon
Miriam Mann steals the COLORED COMPUTERS sign and puts it in her purse. The next day the sign is back. Mann steals... (full context)
Chapter 13: Turbulence
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work  Theme Icon
...She also likes her colleagues and feels completely at home at Langley. She ignores the “COLORED” Signs and uses whichever bathroom is closest. She eats lunch at her desk rather than in... (full context)