Local author spotlights under-the-radar female mathematicians at NASA

  • LEAVE A COMMENT
The Friendship 7/Mercury-Atlas 6 with astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. aboard was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 20, 1962.  (NASA / CNP) Mary Jackson worked as a female “computer” at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, where she researched investigations about the airflow around model planes and space rockets in the Supersonic Tunnels Branch. (Courtesy NASA) The Friendship 7/Mercury-Atlas 6 with astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. aboard was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 20, 1962. (NASA / CNP) Mary Jackson worked as a female “computer” at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, where she researched investigations about the airflow around model planes and space rockets in the Supersonic Tunnels Branch. (Courtesy NASA)

On February 20, 1962, Americans sat around their radios or TVs, transfixed by every update as astronaut John Glenn was launched into space, and became the first American to orbit the Earth. It was a big deal, not only for the country, but for the world. But as with many major scientific milestones, individual icons often overshadow the people behind the scenes. Back at NASA, the women “computers”—mathematicians—were an integral part of the approximately 1.2 million tests and simulations that got Glenn into space.

“These women really were amazing,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. “American superheroes, ordinary extraordinary people.”

A University of Virginia alum and Charlottesville resident, Shetterly is the author of the New York Times best-seller Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (Hidden Figures, the movie, opens on Christmas Day). In the book, Shetterly lays out the histories and the story of black female mathematicians and physicists such as Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, who became human computers for the West Area Computing Group at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

DF-01466_R - Janelle Monáe stars as Mary Jackson in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.
Janelle Monáe stars as Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures. 20th Century Fox

Shetterly spent much of her early life around the scientists, physicists and engineers of NASA. Her father started work there in 1966 as a co-op student, and Shetterly remembers going to work with him, seeing the giant wind turbines, eating in the cafeteria and going to family festivals for NASA employees.

She later moved to Charlottesville to study finance at UVA, graduating in 1991 from the McIntire School of Commerce. After getting her degree, she spent years trading on Wall Street before she and her husband moved to Mexico and started an English-language publication there.

Around Christmas of 2010, the couple was back in Hampton visiting family. They were driving around with her father, Robert Lee III, and he was telling her about her Sunday school teacher who had been a computer at NASA. During the ride, the conversation about the women who worked there, such as Johnson, who calculated launch windows for astronauts (including for Glenn’s first flight), grew.

“For me, I realized I knew these women, but I didn’t know this story,” Shetterly says in a phone interview with C-VILLE. “And that sent me down the path to figure it out.”

Once she understood the historical significance of the work the women did, Shetterly wrote in the book’s prologue that “the spark of curiosity became an all-consuming fire,” and she dove vigorously into the research.

Margot Lee Shetterly, a 1991 graduate of UVA, started researching material for her book, Hidden Figures, in 2010, after her dad, Robert Lee III, told her he had worked alongside one of her Sunday school teachers at NASA. Photo by Aran Shetterly
Margot Lee Shetterly, a 1991 graduate of UVA, started researching material for her book, Hidden Figures, in 2010, after her dad, Robert Lee III, told her he had worked alongside one of her Sunday school teachers at NASA. Photo by Aran Shetterly

The story of the desegregation of NASA is a complicated one, rooted in the early civil rights movement. Its kicking off point came in 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt desegregated the defense industry. Government agencies like Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory suffered from a labor shortage during World War II, and qualified African-Americans seized the opportunity to apply to fill positions such as scientific aides, lab assistants, model makers and mathematicians. The women human computers crunched numbers for the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, later to be renamed NASA) to make airplanes quicker, safer and more efficient. They often matriculated from historically black colleges and universities like Hampton Institute and West Virginia Institute (today’s historically black colleges and universities, which serve 3 percent of the U.S. collegiate population, produce more than a quarter of the African-American college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field).

Once World War II ended, and America transitioned into the Cold War Space Race with the Soviet Union, NASA set its sights on sending American astronauts into space. Vaughan, Johnson and Jackson were integral parts of advancing this mission—doing long calculations, creating, checking and rechecking equations, taking part in model experiments and studying aeronautics to improve air traffic control.

Hidden Figures catalogs these contributions, but it also talks about the complicated time period from the early integration period of the 1940s to 1980, when about 50 black female mathematicians worked at Langley. The women computers were separated from the men, but also from each other—the East Computing area was for white women, and the West Computing area was for black women. But collaboration was necessary to keep the assembly line of equations, figures and data running smoothly between research divisions, so working with people from different genders and races was a regular occurrence.

However, women at NASA were ranked below and paid less than their male counterparts, even with a similar amount of education and experience. And it was hard work—the grind of computers was repetitive and tedious, as these women inputed numbers through calculating machines as they tested equations through long days with half-hour lunches during a six-day work week. Before astronauts took off into space, the computers of West Area helped engineers in the aeronautic division. The women computers had to keep pace with the blitzing speed of the American aircraft industry, which went from the 43rd-largest industry in the U.S. in 1938 to the biggest industry in the world by 1943.

The women’s experience with NASA is rooted in the evolving political and social climate of the time. While it may have not been as harsh or overt at Langley, segregation was a part of virtually every level of U.S. society at the time—from housing to employment to health services to education. But, eventually, landmark victories in the fight for civil rights and racial equality were won.

In the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, therefore unconstitutional. African-American students were granted admission into public schools—from grade school to grad school—across the country.

Despite the ruling, integration was not immediate, nor was it institutionalized en masse. Many state and local politicians, particularly in the South, fought the ruling. During his inauguration speech, Virginia Governor James Lindsay Almond Jr. described segregation as part of the “plain and unequivocal facts of history.” On a chilly January 1958 day, Almond proclaimed an antebellum creed that “integration anywhere means destruction everywhere.”

But the federal government and civil rights groups continued to fight to desegregate public schools. At the time, African-Americans in Charlottesville attended segregated schools like Jefferson Elementary and Burley High School. Seeking better education and resources, black families petitioned to be allowed into the city’s white schools and were the denied by the Charlottesville School Board. In 1956, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a lawsuit against the board to force its schools to integrate. By the fall of the same year, the U.S. District Court ruled in Allen v. School Board of the City of Charlottesville that Charlottesville must integrate Venable Elementary and Lane High.

Refusing to comply with the federal order, Almond ordered the shutdown of Lane and Venable in the fall of 1958, both of which remained closed until the next school year. Though truncating more than half of a school year was a serious measure, Almond’s C’ville order was not the most drastic in Virginia. Prince Edward County schools closed for five years rather than integrate—from 1959 to 1964. But Charlottesville eventually accepted the judgment, and at the start of the 1959 school year, three African-American students—John Martin, his brother, Donald, and French Jackson—walked through the front doors of Lane High School.

Though the progress was just as gradual, the road to desegregating the University of Virginia happened earlier than the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the 1950s, the undergraduate community was almost exclusively white males, aside from white women studying in the nursing and education schools. Pro-segregation Virginia Senator Harry Byrd said, “If we can organize the Southern states for massive resistance to this order I think that, in time, the rest of the country will realize that integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”

But in 1950, Gregory Swanson sued the university to gain admission into its law school. Swanson was admitted, but he decided to leave after one year. Though his stay was short-lived, Swanson paved the way for other graduate students such as Walter N. Ridley from Newport News. At the time, UVA was looking to admit blacks “who were highly likely to be successful.” Ridley applied and was admitted, and in 1953, he became the first black man to receive an academic doctoral degree at the University of Virginia and at any Southern institution of higher education. UVA’s undergraduate program became integrated in 1955, and many of the trailblazing African-American undergrads studied in the STEM fields.

One of the students who benefited from these trailblazers is Victoria Tucker. Tucker, who graduated in 2012 with a nursing degree, works in palliative care at Virginia Commonwealth University while pursuing a nursing Ph.D. at UVA. She originally wanted to focus her doctoral studies on palliative care, doing something that focused on mindfulness as a family caregiver, but then she stumbled upon her own “hidden figure.” For a grad school class assignment, the professor asked students to turn in a history paper on any topic of their choice.

“What started as a personal quest for understanding my own heritage in nursing became such a humbling experience,” says Tucker. “I thought to myself, ‘What did I need when I was younger?’ There weren’t books about black nurses that were really accessible to me at an early age. And I just realized, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to add to that scholarship.’”

Tucker reached out to the nursing school alumni office to inquire about Dr. Mavis Claytor, the first African-American to earn a degree from UVA’s nursing school in 1970. Tucker spent time with Claytor and her family, and learned about her experience integrating UVA’s nursing school. That meeting inspired Tucker to change her course trajectory to nursing history, specifically the history of African-American nurses in Virginia during segregation from 1950 to 1980. She’s now digging into the archives to uncover these written and oral histories.

Tucker’s discovery of Claytor as a “first” for UVA as late as the 1970s was not unique. Many institutions found it difficult to integrate in a timely manner—juggling the law of the land with the racial climate of U.S. society. To reconcile these warring demands, some educational institutions complied in a de jure sense, by pushing back against or slowing down integration efforts. In terms of early and high school education, this could mean building portable additions to overcrowded black schools instead of sending extra students to nearby white schools, or busing black students to farther away black schools instead of letting them attend white schools closer to home.

Initially, U.S. colleges and universities only admitted white males. White women were the next demographic to be integrated into American higher education, but, early on, they faced pushback as well. Kitty O’Brien Joyner, one of the only female engineers at NACA when she was hired in 1939, had sued UVA—and won—to gain admittance into its all-male undergraduate engineering school. But institutions around the South especially, built extension schools to reach underserved populations like women, people who lived in more rural, secluded areas or those who wanted an education but did not have the economic liberty to move to college towns or to go to school full-time. As the early civil rights movement gained steam, and African-Americans demanded equal opportunities, many colleges and universities admitted minorities into these extension schools, where they attended classes away from campus. One such student was Mary Jackson, one of the women highlighted in Hidden Figures. In 1938, the Hampton, Virginia, native graduated from Phenix High with the highest honors. She went to Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University), majoring in math and physical science. After college, she worked as a secretary and bookkeeper for the King Street USO. Jackson was active in the Hampton community, leading the Bethel AME Church Girl Scout Troop, and she spearheaded social uplift programs as a sister of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first historically black intercollegiate sorority. Jackson was working as a military clerk typist when she perused a list of job vacancies in the Air Scoop, the official publication at Langley. Jackson spotted a research position at Langley and decided to apply. Three month later, she accepted the job, where she performed research investigations about the airflow around model planes and space rockets in the Supersonic Tunnels Branch.

Recognizing a brilliant mathematician, Jackson’s boss offered her a promotion if she took a few more math classes, starting with a differential equations course. This extension program (managed by UVA) was set up for the NASA Langley employees. At the time, Hampton was a segregated city, and Hampton High School, where UVA offered its extension classes, was an all-white school. Jackson applied to the City of Hampton for special permission to attend the extension school classes, and although her dispensation was granted, it didn’t result in a general acceptance of black employees from Langley being allowed to attend the school.

Like Margot Lee Shetterly, other UVA grads have actively engaged in archiving the contributions of African-Americans to the greater American history, but also, more specifically, to the legacy of Virginia and its flagship university.

Born and raised in Charlottesville, Niya Bates has two degrees from UVA—a bachelor’s of arts in African-American studies in 2012 and a master’s in architectural history. In May, she became the public historian of slavery and African-American life at Monticello. Her daily tasks include leading guide staff trainings on talking about race and the legacy of slavery at Monticello, helping develop new museum exhibitions and cultivating a diverse visitation audience with community outreach. Bates knew she wanted to be a historian since childhood.

Niya Bates, who was hired as the public historian of slavery and African-American life at Monticello in May, says uncovering the hidden histories at Monticello is critical to continuing to spotlight the complexities and depth of American history. Photo by Eze Amos
Niya Bates, who was hired as the public historian of slavery and African-American life at Monticello in May, says uncovering the hidden histories at Monticello is critical to continuing to spotlight the complexities and depth of American history. Photo by Eze Amos

“I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up,” she said. “My granddaddy was born in 1908, and my grandmother 1927, so they told us about growing up in the South during Jim Crow, going to one- or two-room schools, walking miles to work at a nearby former plantation. But they were proud of their history, and the ways they maintained and resisted. It’s something that always stuck with me.”

After serving in AmeriCorps, Bates became interested in how physical space shapes identity, which is what led her to architectural history and historic preservation. Bates feels that her work to uncover the hidden histories at Monticello is critical, spotlighting the complexities and depth of American history. To her, the lives of Sally Hemings, Brown Colbert and other slaves Thomas Jefferson owned are the “hidden figures” that make history so unique and complicated.

“I knew I was led by a desire to stay in my hometown, and wanted to work in a profession that allowed me to do community development,” Bates says. “Sure Jefferson’s contributions to our nation’s founding were interesting, but telling their stories is what makes my job fun and gives it the most meaning.”

Claudrena Harold, an associate professor of African-American and African studies and history at UVA, says that desegregation was a complicated story that began decades before Brown v. Board of Education or the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it extends into the late 1970s. She recently published a book on the political organizing work and activity of black Southerners titled New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South.

“For the most part, African-Americans integrated graduate schools before they integrated undergraduate schools,” she says. “Before some of the major Southern schools became integrated, what the states would actually do is pay for African-Americans to go to schools that would accept them.”

Claudrena Harold, associate professor of African-American and African studies and history at UVA, says the draw to the Hidden Figures story is that it’s told through a collective voice, rather than spotlighting one individual in black history. Photo by Eze Amos
Claudrena Harold, associate professor of African-American and African studies and history at UVA, says the draw to the Hidden Figures story is that it’s told through a collective voice, rather than spotlighting one individual in black history. Photo by Eze Amos

UVA did that in 1936 when a black student named Alice Jackson became the first black student to apply to the university. When she was denied admission into UVA’s master’s degree program in French, the NAACP sued the state of Virginia. As a response, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Dovell Act, or House Bill 470, which set up a fund that would subsidize the tuition and travel expenses of qualified black students so they could pursue graduate education in other states. Jackson and hundreds of African-American students over the next few decades had their educations paid for this way (UVA continued this policy until 1950). She used her grant money to get a master’s in English in 1937 from Columbia University.

Historical significance and narrative power are a big reason why Hidden Figures continues to garner heavy buzz. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama held a private screening of the film, followed by a panel that included the film’s creators, cast members and Shetterly. As a scholar studying groups, movements and eras, and as a co-director of two films herself (Sugarcoated Arsenic and We Demand), Claudrena Harold thinks one of Hidden Figures’ biggest draws is that it tells the story of a collective. The book and film put the spotlight on colleagues, their cooperation with each other and support of each other, which is a story that strays from the typical way history is told—through singular actors in “great man”-type narratives.

“I tend not to like what I call ‘first Negro’ narratives–the first black person to do this or that—because when I think about something like education, I think generations, not individuals, transform history,” says Harold. “To be sure, there are seminal figures in our history, but I think black intellectual history can be told through Ida B. Wells or W.E.B. Du Bois, but also through a Virginia Union University or a Howard University. So in addition to their distinctiveness, it’s also important that they are doing this together.”

Shetterly feels that the story of Hidden Figures is encouraging for people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, genders and ages, because it taps into a sense of optimism and shared humanity.

“At a time we are looking at issues of inclusion, I think we’re asking ourselves: who are we as American? Who gets to call themselves American?” Shetterly says. “There’s all these questions that we were asking in the ’40s, ’50s and 60s that are still relevant today.”

Leave a Comment

Comment Policy