The “hidden figures” in the title of Margot Lee Shetterly’s new book will not be hidden much longer. This story of African-American female mathematicians who made a significant impact on the Space Race has already been optioned for a film due out in January. It’s a surprising story, even more so for how long it took to be told.
Shetterly profiles several of the women who, upon realizing that their math skills qualified them for a better living than they could make doing virtually anything else, pulled up stakes and decamped for Hampton, Virginia, in some cases leaving husbands and children behind. Once there, they attempted to make their way into the middle class even as they chafed at the restrictions placed on them by segregation. One of the “Colored Computers,” as they were called, drew the line at a cafeteria sign designating one table as theirs. Sick of the reminder, she pulled down the sign and shoved it in her purse.
Working for the NACA, as it was then known, to design the bombers flown during World War II led to employment with NASA as the Cold War generated frantic U.S. efforts to surpass Russia. If Shetterly’s prose is sometimes dry, the material it covers is fascinating and loaded with victories large and small for these highly skilled and tenacious workers.
Shetterly writes about Katherine Johnson, one of the “computers” described in near-mythic terms by a growing fan club, as representative of the America we aspire to be. Her description could apply to any of the women profiled in Hidden Figures: “She has been standing in the future for years, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.”