Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (2016) offers an account of the little known history of black women mathematicians who were responsible for John Glenn’s first orbit around Earth and who were responsible for sending Neil Armstrong to the moon. Although these women had teaching positions in segregated schools in the South, they knew their minds and talents were needed to advance the modern American space program; they answered the nation’s call for their help. These brilliant black women contributed significantly to shaping our modern space program.
Reared in Hampton, Virginia, where she met many of these black women pioneers she discusses in Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly, a recipient of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities research grant and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, divulges how black women were able to make historic contributions to the space program, even though Science and Mathematics have always been largely dominated by white men.
Shetterly explains that the genesis of black women’s contributions as mathematicians at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton,Virginia is in the 1940s. In the 1940s, Langley hired its first black employees as “computers,” considering their duties were to perform mathematical computations. Before the 1940s, racist policies prevented black people from accessing these jobs at Langley. Refusing to accept black exclusion from any workplace, A. Philip Randolph and other freedom fighters tirelessly and effectively championed the cause of anti-discrimination, especially as it pertains to race, in employment.
Philip Randolph threatened to send 100,000 protesters to march on our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. to generate national awareness about the economic violence of racial discrimination in employment. The efforts of Randolph and other civil rights leaders were successful: In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which forbid racial discrimination in the national defense industry, and Executive Order 9346, which led to the assembling of the Fair Employment Practices Committee to fight racial discrimination in employment. FDR called for racial equality in federal employment. These efforts led to black women being able to work at Langley, albeit in a segregated work environment.
Although most of these black women have not received the honor due to them, Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2015.
World War II afforded these black women a special opportunity: a great number of new airplanes were needed and a corresponding increase in the need for more mathematicians to aid in designing these airplanes; these black women capitalized on the opportunity. Langley was so desperate for more mathematicians that no other choice was left but to hire them.
Shetterly reveals that the number of women who worked at Langley between 1943 – 1980 is unknown; it could have been hundreds or thousands. She estimates around 70 black women worked at Langley during the aforementioned period, though.
Despite the constant ugly racism and discrimination they faced on the inside of Langley, black women like Katherine Johnson excelled. Their white colleagues could not have accomplished what was necessary without them.
Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison