During World War II, military and computing technology advanced rapidly, a trend that continued through the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Hidden Figures traces a part of that history, which Shetterly calls “Aeronautics’ evolution from a wobbly infancy to a strapping adolescence.” She contrasts the high-speed evolution of defense and computing technology with the slow progress of the movement for equality and civil rights, which moved haltingly in the face of persistent opposition.
The NACA was a part of many of the biggest scientific developments of the twentieth century, driving human flight capability from fighter planes to rocket ships, and laying the groundwork for the United States to become the first nation to land a man on the moon. Shetterly also emphasizes the important advances made in the field of electronic computers during this period, as they replaced human mathematicians in the NACA’s mathematical research departments. “Only the most shortsighted,” Shetterly writes, “failed to recognize that electronic computers were around for the long haul.”
Shetterly counterbalances the rapid evolution of computers and planes with the stunted progress of civil rights legislation. “Scientific progress in the twentieth century had been relatively linear,” Shetterly writes. “Social progress, on the other hand, did not always 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.” Charles Hamilton Houston, a young soldier who would eventually become a prominent civil rights activist and lawyer, recalled a white man’s refusal to sit next to him on a train. Houston was wearing his military uniform, proof that he’d served. “I felt damned glad I had not lost my life fighting for my country,” Hamilton said, expressing gratitude that he hadn’t been killed fighting a war for a white population that refused to see him as an equal. Even as the United States saw great advances at home and abroad, it found itself left behind by more progressive nations when it came to human rights.
As a result of this racial short-sightedness, other countries looked at the U.S. with disdain, an issue that plagued the nation through the end of World War II and into the Cold War, when it found itself pitted against the Soviet Union in a nuclear arms race. Black Americans pointed to Russia’s willingness to educate all its citizens—putting them ahead of the U.S. when it came to technological capability—while segregation meant resources were often withheld from black students. After public schools were desegregated by Federal mandate, for example, Virginia’s Prince Edward County defunded its entire public school system so that white students wouldn’t have to go to school with black students. The schools would stay closed for five years, creating a group of children known as the “Lost Generation,” some of whom never made up for what they lost in education. Here, Shetterly shows how, at the same time as the US advanced in its military capabilities, it undermined that progress by sewing division among its own people.
Shetterly also contrasts the NACA’s technological foresight with the backwards view of gender that plagued the organization. Even as the NACA could influence and forecast the future of science, the organization remained blind to struggles for racial and gender equality that would reshape the nation in the second half of the twentieth century. After hiring Katherine Johnson to work for the Flight Research Division, for example, Henry Pearson fought to avoid paying her what she was worth. “Pearson,” Shetterly writes, “was not a big fan of women in the workplace. His wife did not work; rumor had it that Mrs. Henry Pearson had been forbidden by her husband from holding a job.” Shetterly implies here that men like Pearson were not uncommon at places like the NACA, where women were not seen as equals by the people who hired them.
This widespread inequality between male and female employees was also reinforced by a system in which, “Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings initiating them into their guild over conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. By contrast, women “had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations.” Even women who made important contributions to major projects had trouble getting credit for their work. “A woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? Many engineers figured. They were women after all.” Again, Shetterly shows how one of the most forward-thinking technological organizations in the world found itself unable to face the obvious fact that male and female employees deserved equal pay, recognition, and opportunities to advance in their careers.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, as aerospace and computing technology advanced more quickly than ever, the United States lagged behind the rest of the world when it came to gender equality and civil rights. This contradiction was not lost on the West Area computers. About Katherine Johnson, Shetterly writes, “The broader implication of her role as a black woman in a still-segregated country, helping to light the fuse that would propel that country to achieve one of its greatest ambitions, was a topic that would occupy her mind for the rest of her life.” Johnson’s ability to mentally negotiate this inconsistency played a pivotal role in her success as a West Area computer.
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress ThemeTracker
Scientific Progress vs. Social and Political Progress 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.
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.
Negroes joined their countrymen in recoiling at the horrors Germany visited upon its Jewish citizens by restricting the type of jobs they were allowed to hold and the businesses they could start, imprisoning them wantonly and depriving them of due process and all citizenship rights, subjecting them to state-sanctioned humiliation and violence, segregating them into ghettos, and ultimately working them to death in slave camps and marking them for extermination. How could an American Negro observe the annihilation happening in Europe without identifying it with their own four-century struggle against deprivation, disenfranchisement, slavery, and violence?
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.
With victory over the enemies from without assured, Negroes took stock of their own battlefield. Almost immediately after V-J Day, some employers returned to their white, Gentile-only employment policies. The FEPC, however feeble it might have been in reality during the war, had nonetheless become a powerful symbol of employment progress for Negroes and other ethnic minorities. With labor markets loosening, the dream that many black leaders had of establishing a permanent FEPC slipped away with the war emergency, in spite of President Truman's support.
Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers….women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. … Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all.
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.
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.
The morning of October 5 was the official dawn of the space age, the public debut of man's competition to break free of the bonds of terrestrial gravity and travel, along with all his belligerent tendencies, beyond Earth's atmosphere.
"Eighty percent of the world's population is colored…In trying to provide leadership in world events, it is necessary for this country to indicate to the world that we practice equality for all within this country. Those countries where colored persons constitute a majority should not be able to point to a double standard existing within the United States."
"Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all.
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.
Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.
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.