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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly.

August 14, 2016

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly.  William Morrow (2016), 368 pages.

4 stars

The history of the African American women who did crucial mathematical calculations for airplane and space research at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, during World War II and the Cold War.

When World War II broke out, America’s air force was inferior to that of other major nations.  Catching up was necessary.  A major research center for aerodynamics was established alongside an air force base at Langley, on the Virginia peninsula.  With so many men already in the armed forces, women were hired to conduct the mathematical calculations necessary for the research in the days before electronic computers.  At Langley this included African Americans with degrees from nearby black colleges. Some of them were teaching math and science in Virginia’s segregated schools. The number of black women at Langley varied but remained significant.

Virginia was still firmly segregated in 1943, when the women were first hired.  Black and white women worked in separated facilities on the east and west side of Langley.  Restrooms were labeled for white and “colored.”  One table in the cafeteria was identified as for “colored women,” although one of the women regularly removed the sign in protest.  Generally, however, the women accepted their separation as normal for the time and place.

Many women who had worked at “men’s jobs” during the war were sent home when it ended.  Langley, however, was able to shift its focus from airplanes to spacecraft and keep its women computers busy.  When Russia launched its “sputnik” in 1957, the space race with Russia accelerated; Langley shifted its focus to space.  At the same time, the civil rights movement was demanding better treatment for African Americans.  While much of the focus was local, Cold War tensions were demanding that Americans stop some their blatant discrimination.  At Langley, research became more specialized and black women left the math lab to integrate the various divisions.   As electronic computers replaced human ones, the women’s responsibility often shifted to converting researchers’ request for data into machine-readable forms.

Margot Shetterly has brought a significant untold narrative into public view and deserves praise for having done so.  At times she tells the story of the black women as a group and at times she focuses on the individuals who had particularly successful careers at Langley. For example we learn about Dorothy Vaughan, black women who became an early supervisor of the human computers, and Katherine Johnson, who was recently awarded the President’s Metal of Freedom for her calculations that were essential for John Glen’s space flight.  In these individual stories, Shetterly show readers how the women handled their private lives in still segregated Virginia.   Importantly, Shetterly also provides the seldom-noted context of the foreign affairs driving both the contest to dominate space and the race relations which were shifting at the same time.   She gives us a clear picture of what was happening in Hampton as segregation was slowly challenged and some black individuals were able to achieve the “American Dream.”

As the daughter of a scientific researcher at Langley and an English professor at Hampton University, Shetterly grew up in solidly middle-class black community which had housed the families of the African American women mathematicians she describes in her book.  Her close connections with both the women and the place they lived contribute to her ability to do extensive research and interviews.  In addition, she has the experience to understand the contradictions of African-American professionals in the mid-twentieth-century south.  Her approach combines careful research with justified admiration for those who went before her.  A chatty writing style with lots of footnotes characterizes her prose.

I gladly recommend Hidden Figures to other readers.  In addition to being well researched and written, the stories are significant for the ways we think about race and segregation and how rights for some blacks expanded.   The book is also an important contribution to the history of space technology and the history of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2016 4:23 pm

    An amazing story, a little like the WW2 women of Bletchley in England, who were instrumental in code-breaking, but in the US with the complexities of racism as well. It’s great that these stories are being told, thanks for sharing in your review.

    • August 17, 2016 11:23 am

      Yes, and the jobs they held made such an important difference in the lives of them and their families.

  2. August 17, 2016 11:33 am

    I just learned that there will be a movie made from this book. It has the same name and you can see the trailer on line. The movie seems to have created scenes not the book, however.

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