Black computers like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson depended on their families and communities to thrive. Extended family, the church, and civic organizations like the Girl Scouts all played a part in their achievements. Shetterly offers a portrait of the bonds between members of the black middle class in the Jim Crow South, then demonstrates the ways in which the NACA’s black employees also benefitted from the integrated community that slowly developed at work. Finally, Shetterly shows how this community effort allowed the West Area computers to lay the foundations for the success of the generations of black professionals who came after them.
Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson all came from close-knit black neighborhoods where civic action formed an important part of their daily lives. These communities helped set the stage for each of their professional achievements.
In college, Katherine Johnson was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first sorority established for and by black women. She was mentored by “a gifted young math professor,” William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, one of the first black men to earn a PhD from Penn, “who created advanced math classes just for her.” Later, the president of West Virginia State College (Katherine’s alma mater) chose her to be one of the first black master’s students at West Virginia University. Clearly, Katherine Johnson was wildly talented, but she could never have made it to the NACA without mentors.
Dorothy Vaughan has a similar story. When she won a place at an all black college in Ohio, a black community church underwrote a scholarship for her and marked the occasion with an eight-page pamphlet that it distributed to members. When Vaughan was looking for work as a teacher, she found a job through a network in which “black colleges received calls from schools around the country requesting teachers, then dispatched their alumni to fill open positions.” This shows, again, that Vaughan did not achieve her goals alone, but through a collective effort.
Hidden Figures takes place in the context of the Civil Rights movement. Activists like A. Phillip Randolph and Charles Hamilton Houston helped end segregation in the schools and forced the government to open wartime jobs up to black people, setting the groundwork for the West Area computers to achieve their dreams. “The social and organizational changes occurring at Langley were buoyed by the civil rights forces gathering momentum in the country,” Shetterly writes. Here, Shetterly shows the passing of the torch from those active in the Civil Rights Movement to women like the West Area computers.
Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson’s time at the NACA coincided with the internal relaxation of some of its strict segregationist codes. The integrated community cultivated at Langley made the NACA more welcoming for black women and their families, helping the West Area computers carve out places for themselves and build long-term careers. About the NACA, Shetterly writes, “True social contact across the races was well nigh impossible, yet within the confines of their offices, relationships cultivated over intense days and long years blossomed into respect, fondness and even friendship. The colleagues exchanged Christmas cards with one another, asked after spouses and children…and came together for extracurricular activities based at the laboratory.” Shetterly emphasizes the importance of community at the NACA, showing how even its partial integration helped spur the West Area computers on to greater success than they would have achieved alone.
Shetterly also outlines the ways people at the NACA strategized around Jim Crow laws to maintain a sense of community: “The activities building was the site of club meetings and branch get-togethers, an end run around the embarrassment and difficulty of finding a venue in the town that would accommodate a racially mixed group,” she explains. Because of the relative freedom the Langley base offered, “The Negro employees began attending center wide events such as the annual Christmas party… Dorothy Vaughan’s children counted the days until the laboratory’s giant picnic, where they could romp and play with the other kids and eat their fill of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers.” Shetterly highlights again how the sense of community that marked the West Area computers’ childhood and early adulthoods also came to characterize the NACA, helping to provide the West Area computers with the support they needed to thrive in their roles.
The women who benefitted from community support, in turn, did everything they could to provide that same support to other African-Americans in their neighborhoods and at the NACA, paving the way for black engineers and mathematicians who would come after them. During her time at the NACA, Shetterly writes, “Katherine Johnson was involved in so many civic and social associations….that folks came to expect to see her broad smile and firm handshake wherever the professional set of the black community gathered.” Johnson never forgot the role community played in her early success, and she also knew that it was crucial for her to give back to her own community in turn.
Mary Jackson, after reaching a senior technical position in her field, took a demotion at the age of 58 to join the human resources department, where she could more easily fight for equal opportunity hiring. “Helping girls and women advance was at the core of Mary’s humanitarian spirit,” Shetterly writes. This was a direct result of Jackson having benefitted from community support early on in her career and making a commitment to help smooth the way for black women who came after her. Dorothy Vaughan, as a section head at the NACA, took advantage of her seniority to help shepherd the careers of dozens of black female mathematicians, becoming the first black supervisor at the organization, and making it possible for black women like Johnson and Jackson to progress from mathematician to senior engineer.
Although the women in Hidden Figures accomplished a great deal, none of them would have been able to do so without the support of their communities, both at home and at the NACA. The women, in turn, did what they could to shape and improve their own communities and to promote the progress of the next generation.
Community Quotes in Hidden Figures
Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley's West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female. For a group of bright and ambitious African American women, diligently prepared for a mathematical career and eager for a crack at the big leagues, Hampton, Virginia, must have felt like the center of the universe.
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.
Dorothy worked as a math teacher…. As a college graduate and a teacher, she stood near the top of what most Negro women could hope to achieve. Teachers were considered the "upper level of training and intelligence in the race” a ground force of educators who would not just impart book learning but live in the Negro community and "direct its thoughts and head its social movements.” Her in-laws were mainstays of the town's Negro elite. They owned a barbershop, a pool hall, and a service station. The family's activities were regular fodder for the social column in the Farmville section of the Norfolk journal and Guide, the leading Negro newspaper in the southeastern United States. Dorothy, her husband, Howard, and their four young children lived in a large, rambling Victorian house on South Main Street with Howard's parents and grandparents.
…At the end of November 1943, at thirty-two years old, a second chance—one that might finally unleash her professional potential—found Dorothy Vaughan. It was disguised as a temporary furlough from her life as a teacher, a stint expected to end and deposit her back in the familiarity of Farmville when her country's long and bloody conflict was over. The Colemans' youngest daughter would eventually find the same second chance years in the future, following Dorothy Vaughan down the road to Newport News, turning the happenstance of a meeting during the Greenbrier summer into something that looked a lot more like destiny.
The American mosaic was on full display, youngsters barely over the threshold of adolescence and men in the sinewy prime of manhood, fresh from the nation's cities, small towns, and countrysides, pooling in the war towns like summer rain. Negro regiments piled in from around the country. One detachment was composed entirely of Japanese Americans. Enlistees from Allied countries, like Chinese medical officers and the first Caribbean Regiment, presented themselves to the port's commanding officers before shipping out. Companies of the Women's Army Corps (WACs) stood ramrod straight and saluted. The port band sent soldiers off with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” "Carolina in My Mind,” "La Marseillaise”—the melodies of a hundred different hearts and hometowns.
In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools. Exactly zero percent of those 1940 college graduates became engineers. And yet, in an era when just 10 percent of white women and not even a full third of white men had earned college degrees, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at the "single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.”
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.
Readers of black newspapers around the country followed the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen with an intensity that bordered on the obsessive. Who said a Negro couldn’t fly! Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. and the 332nd Fighter Group took the war to the Axis powers from thirty thousand feet. The papers sent special correspondents to shadow the pilots as they served in the skies over Europe, each dispatch from the European front producing shivers of delight. Flyers Help Smash Nazis! Negro Pilots sink Nazi warship! 332nd Bags 25 Enemy planes, Breaks Record in weekend victories! No radio serial could compete with the real life exploits of the men who were the very embodiment of the Double V.
As if trying to redeem his own professional disappointment through the achievements of one of the few students whose ability matched his impossibly high standards, Claytor maintained an unshakable belief that Katherine could meet with a successful future in mathematical research, all odds to the contrary. The prospects for a Negro woman in the field could be viewed only as dismal. If Dorothy Vaughan had been able to accept Howard University's offer of graduate admission, she likely would have been Claytor's only female classmate, with virtually no postgraduate career options outside of teaching, even with a master's degree in hand. In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.
ln 1947, a Mississippi hotel denied service to the Haitian secretary of agriculture, who had come to the state to attend an international conference. The same year, a restaurant in the South banned Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's personal doctor from its premises because of his dark skin. Diplomats traveling from New York to Washington along Route 40 were often rejected if they stopped for a meal at restaurants in Maryland. The humiliations, so commonplace in the United States that they barely raised eyebrows, much less the interest of the press, were the talk of the town in the envoys' home countries. Headlines like "Untouchability Banished in India: Worshipped in America” which appeared in a Bombay newspaper in 1951, mortified the US diplomatic corps. Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.
Scientific progress in the twentieth century had been relatively linear; social progress, however, did not move in a straight line, as the descent from the hopeful years after the Civil War into the despairing circumstances of the Jim Crow laws proved. But since World War II, one brick after another had been pried from the walls of segregation. The Supreme Court victories opening graduate education to black students, the executive orders integrating the federal government and the military, the victory, both real and symbolic when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Negro baseball player Jackie Robinson, were all new landings reached, new corners turned, hopes that pushed Negroes to redouble their efforts to sever the link between separate and equal decisively and permanently.
Being part of a Black First was a powerful symbol, she knew just as well as anyone, and she embraced her son's achievement with delight. But she also knew that the best thing about breaking a barrier was that it would never have to be broken again.
The resonances and dissonances of the images in the book were sharpest there at Langley, ten miles from the point where African feet first stepped ashore in English North America in 1619, less than that from the sprawling oak tree where Negroes of the Virginia Peninsula convened for the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a place with deep and binding tethers to the past, Katherine Johnson, a black woman, was midwifing the future.
At the beginning of the decade, the Space Program and the civil rights movement had shared a similar optimism, a certain idealism about American democracy and the country's newfound drive to distribute the blessings of democracy to all its citizens. On the cusp of the 1970s, as the space program approached its zenith, the civil rights movement—or rather many of the goals it had set out to achieve—were beginning to feel as if they were in a state of suspended animation.
Katherine Johnson is the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white. The power of her story is such that many accounts incorrectly credit her with being the first black woman to work as a mathematician at NASA, or the only black woman to have held the job. She is often mistakenly reported as having been sent to the "all-male" Flight Research Division, a group that included four other female mathematicians, one of whom was also black. One account implied that her calculations singlehandedly saved the Apollo 13 mission. That even Katherine Johnson's remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history.