This week we lost Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who was an integral part of the United States race to space. Her calculations were so spot-on that astronaut John Glenn requested she double-check behind the NASA computers to make sure all the math was correct. In her 35-year career, she broke down racial and social barriers as she was one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist. After receiving both a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal, Johnson lived a long hardy life to the age of 101.
With her contributions so carefully immortalized in the book Hidden Figures, we figured (no pun intended) that it would only make sense if we shared a piece that our editor-in-chief Shannon Jay wrote back in 2016 when the book’s author Margot Lee Shetterly came to speak at Old Dominion University in conjunction with the release of the Oscar-nominated film based on her book. For anyone who has not read the book or seen the film, we can’t recommend it enough and urge you to seek it out.
“We are the breath of our ancestors” rang the harmonized voices of Old Dominion’s choir, an appropriate sentiment for the events unfolding the night of January 11th.
The song “We Are”, by acclaimed all female, all African-American acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, encompassed the themes explored in the university’s 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observance.
The main event was speaker Margot Lee Shetterly — if you don’t recognize the Hampton, VA native by name, the title of her first novel, Hidden Figures might ring a bell. The best-seller was turned into a feature-length film and hit theaters in a big way, beating out Star Wars for the #1 spot at the box office in its first week.
The story follows four women, two of which received honorary degrees from ODU. During the years of 1943 through 1968, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden worked with other black female mathematicians at NASA Langley in a segregated room. With only pen and paper, these women computed through World War II and went on to calculate the trajectories that would orbit John Glenn around Earth and send Neil Armstrong to the moon.
Coming from no farther than West Virginia, these four extraordinary women are woven in the fabric of our state’s history. “This is a celebration of this place and its people,” Shetterly said. “We have always known this region is a place of fascinating and often complicated history, but now the world knows it, too.”
During a time when segregation was still heavily prevalent and women couldn’t even get a credit card in their own name, “the women of Hidden Figures upend [what it means to] be female, to be black, to be a scientist, and to be American,” Shetterly said.
Mary Jackson had to apply for special permission at Hampton High School to take advanced math classes, and went on to become presumably the country’s first black female aerospace engineer. Katherine Johnson was born in 1918, a birth year where black baby girls faced just a 2% chance of graduating high school. She calculated the orbital space flight that allowed John Glenn to achieve “American domination of the heavens” during the Space Race. Christine Darden, from a segregated grade school with second hand textbooks and no science lab, wrote the computer program that set the industry standard for sonic boom minimization, and became NASA’s leading expert on the topic.
While the night focused on King’s ideals to improve the lives of African-Americans, and how those same values are applied to women, Shetterly wanted to make clear these women “wanted to be what John Glenn says in the movie — the ‘smart one,’ [just] the right person for the job.” She emphasized that the women of the Hidden Figures story needs to be told “not just because they are black or because they are women, but because they too are part of our great American epic.”
In the shadows instead of out on the streets, Shetterly said, these women were “marching not with their feet, but with their mathematical talent” for racial and gender equality. There’s an added layer of nobility with this particular group’s civil rights work, having faced dehumanizing segregation at work daily. However, Shetterly said, “they wore their professional clothes like armor, [and] they wielded their mathematical talent like a weapon, warding off the presumption of inferiority because they were black or female.”
Shetterly’s father worked alongside these women at NASA, and the author only heard their story when her husband, Aran Shetterly, inquired about her father’s time there. That was 6 years ago, and ever since Margot Lee Shetterly has interviewed the women and spent time with their families to uncover the untold story. Their amazing achievements inspired her to found The Human Computer Project, which works to archive all the stories of African-American women who worked as computer scientists and mathematicians at the height of NASA that history has skimmed past.
The women of “Hidden Figures” felt the weight of the responsibilities the ODU choir hummed and Sweet Honey in the Rock chanted. “They knew,” Shetterly said, “that every action they took over the course of their long careers would have implications for the next generation of people who looked like them.” Along with being great at their job, Shetterly said, these women and their colleagues were out to prove “that excellence has neither color nor gender.”
When an audience member asked if the film would have a sequel, Shetterly responded that it won’t be a direct second act, but she’s working on another book, and hopes for a long career in telling stories untold.
From Shannon Jay: “Johnson was there that day, and even then I realized how special it was to share a room with history – a woman whose achievements were monumental and so important not only to black women, but to all of America. Now, with her passing, it’s a moment I’ll hold even more dear.“