Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Publisher: William Morris
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
“Hidden Figures” has an extended and explanatory subtitle: "The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race." The life stories of these black women were so immediately compelling the movie was produced about simultaneously with the book.
Shetterly writes that many readers have asked how these stories remained hidden for so long. She writes they were not "so much hidden as unseen."
The author herself is the child of a black engineer who had joined the Langley Research Center in 1964, so SHE knew there were African-American technologists and engineers at NASA but the general public did not.
But it was unusual. The most common professions for educated blacks were medicine, dentistry, businesses such as insurance and real estate and, for women, nursing and teaching.
The black women whose lives she narrates in this study had mostly been, in fact, teachers. Then the Second World War generated a new set of conditions which gave opportunities never before available.
In 1943 a huge percentage of the American male population was in the service. This created a powerful need in many fields. The image we are perhaps most familiar with is Rosie the Riveter, but a parallel need arose at NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later to become NASA.
This installation, on the Virginia peninsula, was charged with improving the design of fighter planes and bombers for the Army Air Corps, testing wing prototypes in wind tunnels. The staff included design engineers, theoretical mathematicians and "computers"—which in those days meant in fact human beings working at desk-top calculators, doing computations.
In what had been an almost exclusively white male environment, a few white women were recruited. Then, it was discovered, there was also a reservoir of black talent to be tapped, women who had graduated as math majors from schools such as Howard University, Hampton Institute, Virginia State and West Virginia State.
These were gifted women; some had advanced degrees and most were teaching in black high schools.
The country needed them and they were hired, but in Governor Harry Byrd's rigidly segregated Virginia, life was not easy. Housing was difficult to find. Some black housing had to be built. Transportation, like local buses, was segregated, and even at work there were challenges. All the black female mathematicians were put in one unit. "West Computers." In the rear of the cafeteria one large table had on it a sign, “Colored Computers.” That sign was destroyed and replaced many times.
Langley also had to create black female bathrooms, which rankled the talented, patriotic ladies, working day and night on behalf of the war effort.
Promotion was glacial, usually dependent on working with a white engineer on a specific project, but the women were so meticulous, so dependable, in their work that slowly this did happen. These women made their way onto research projects and, finally, were included as authors on Langley research papers.
The desk-top calculators gave way to electronic computers, of course, and eventually the internal walls of segregation came down. The work on airplane wing design gave way to the Mercury Project and then the Apollo moonshots, with some of Shetterly's heroines on the job throughout.
The story itself is one worth telling, but the storytelling mode tends toward the repetitive: except for domestic details like husbands and children, these women faced many of the same challenges, so their stories are very much alike.
Space buffs, especially, will enjoy this book and it does, without doubt, illuminate a piece of NASA history and a chapter in black history hardly anyone knew about.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.