Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race tells the story of a group of African-American women who, over a period of over 25 years, made major contributions to the US space program during its golden age. Overcoming racist and sexist discrimination, these women established themselves as brilliant mathematicians and engineers and helped lead the United States to victory in some of the pivotal moments of the Cold War-era space race—including John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of the Earth and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
The scene of their success was the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. It was here, in the heartland of American segregation, that a group of extraordinary women, including Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, helped their country break through the color barrier and leap into the great unknown.
During World War Two, the gradual dismantling of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation began, as the demands of the war economy brought African-Americans and women into jobs and industries from which they had previously been excluded. This was especially true of the aeronautics and defense industry, which was crucial to the American war effort.
Facilities like Langley began to hire qualified women in large numbers to work as mathematicians and number-crunchers. Aeronautics was an intensely quantitative field: designing and testing combat planes produced a deluge of numerical data that needed to be processed and analyzed. And that meant hiring an army of number-crunchers (“computers” as they were known at the time).
Under pressure from African-American civil rights leaders, the Roosevelt Administration took steps to desegregate the industry and open up defense jobs to black female applicants as well. This enabled the first generation of black female professionals to get in the door at Langley. The opportunity for a black person to work as a computer in an aeronautical laboratory (and not as a janitor or cafeteria worker) was something altogether new and extraordinary. In spring 1943, Dorothy Vaughan, a schoolteacher from Virginia, filled out her application. In the fall, she received her answer: she was hired to work as a Grade P-1 Mathematician at Langley for the duration of the war. It was a position that would last over 30 years.
Despite the opportunity, new arrivals to Langley like Dorothy still had to face the prejudice of living and working in a segregated city of the American South at the height of the Jim Crow era. Black people had to use separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate entrances on buses, send their children to separate schools, and live in separate neighborhoods—or face severe repercussions. Indeed, segregation was powerfully entrenched in the nation’s historical experience and was an all-encompassing feature of life in Virginia.
The prejudice even followed these women into the laboratory at Langley. A separate area of the facility, known as West Area Computing, was reserved for the new black female computers. Langley was generally a place where colleagues worked closely with one another. Because of the color of their skin, however, the West Area Computers were largely excluded from this collegial atmosphere. This was symbolized most hurtfully by the sign on the table where they sat at the back of the cafeteria that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” In an act of defiance, the women of West Computing began tearing the sign down each day they saw it, a first shot across the bow for equality and dignity.
Facing this climate of discrimination, the first generation of West Computers established their own culturally vibrant and cohesive communities all throughout Hampton Roads. Such communities enabled mobile young black families who’d moved to Virginia to keep their morale high and served to welcome and acclimate new waves of black migrants to the region.
After the Allied victory in the war, Hampton Roads became a focal point of the US defense industry during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This meant that most of the West Computers who had initially come to Langley on temporary assignment ended up receiving permanent offers of employment, as Dorothy did in 1946.
The Cold War also marked a turning point in the struggle for black civil rights, contributing to the eventual breakdown of Jim Crow. As the United States sought international allies in its fight against worldwide Soviet Communism, American policymakers began to realize that segregation at home had become a significant liability, one that made America’s self-proclaimed leadership of “the free world” look hypocritical and handed a significant propaganda coup to the Soviet Union. The federal government began putting more resources toward desegregation and slowly started to side with the civil rights protesters over the die-hard segregationists.
As women began advancing through the ranks at Langley in the postwar years, they saw that their sex was still a barrier to advancement in a field that was built and run by men. There was a whole universe of networking, consisting of lunches, cocktail hours, and men-only smoking sessions from which the women were excluded. Moreover, the decentralized nature of their work also disadvantaged the female computers. Because they were only given small portions...
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World War Two was the most devastating conflict in human history. Although the United States was spared from the ravages of combat on its own soil, the war nevertheless profoundly reshaped the country’s economic, social, and political system. Perhaps the most lasting and significant domestic effect of World War Two was its role in accelerating the dismantling of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation that had prevailed throughout much of the American South for over a century following the end of the US Civil War.
The demands of the war economy brought African-Americans and women into jobs and industries from which they had previously been excluded. This was an important factor in breaking down racial apartheid all across the country, as African-Americans refused to accept second-class citizenship in a nation for which they had served, fought, and even died. It was in this context that a pioneering generation of black women first began to break down the color bar at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia.
At the height of the war in 1943, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which operated the...
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, where the Langley lab was located, was a wartime boomtown, bustling with economic activity and new migrants from all over the world participating in the American war effort. There were new black regiments, legions of female and African-American civilian workers, as well as German, Japanese, and Italian POWs. Between 1940 and 1942, the region’s civilian population grew from 393,000 to 575,000. On top of that, the number of military personnel stationed in the area’s bases grew tenfold, from 15,000 to 150,000. By 1945, half the adults in Southern Virginia would be working for the federal government. This influx of new people from all over the country and the world radically reshaped the small southern town’s cultural and economic life.
As progressive and forward-looking as Hampton Roads may have seemed at first glance to someone like Dorothy Vaughan, it was still a segregated city of the American South at the height of the Jim Crow era. Black people and white people had separate entrances to get on buses, and blacks were expected to give up their seats to whites if the white section was filled. African-Americans who were...
Think about how prejudice and discrimination inhibit lives and careers.
Has prejudice ever prevented you from doing something you wanted to do and were capable of doing? Describe what happened in a few sentences.
The research and innovation coming from Langley played a major role in the ultimate Allied victory in World War Two, which finally came when Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. Although few Americans knew it, a small contingent of black female computers had made vital contributions to the superior aircraft production that had enabled the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
But while the end of the war ushered in a nationwide wave of euphoria, it was a source of anxiety for Langley computers like Dorothy Vaughan. Their contracts had only guaranteed employment for the duration of the war. Now that the war was over, what lay ahead for the black computers of Langley? Would the extraordinary opportunity they’d been given be taken away?
The much-feared rollback of federal jobs began quickly. Just three weeks after V-J Day, newspapers announced a planned layoff of 1,500 Newport News shipyard workers as well as downsizings in other parts of the government’s civilian workforce. This would hit women particularly hard, as the returning GIs were expected to have first claim to these jobs. Women who’d earned an unprecedented level of economic...
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Dorothy Vaughan was a tireless advocate for the computers who worked under her. After hearing how well Katherine was performing in the Flight Research Division, she presented the head of the division with an ultimatum: either give Katherine the raise and permanent position in the division she deserved, or return her to West Computing. The division chief, the formidable and intimidating Henry Pearson, acceded to Dorothy’s pressure: Katherine was given a salary increase and a permanent job in his Maneuver Loads Branch in 1953.
This group was working on the aerodynamics of airplanes as they moved in and out of steady, stable flight—a key subject area of research in the Cold War 1950s. It was a very masculine, [restricted term]-fueled workplace, one which didn’t seem outwardly hospitable to a female computer. But Katherine held her own and impressed the engineers with her insatiable intellectual curiosity and her obvious passion for the work. What she relished most of all was the intelligence of her colleagues—she respected their intellectual capacity, and they respected hers right back. **They stopped seeing her as the “black computer” and saw her simply as...
Think about how people like the women of West Computing helped each other overcome obstacles.
Have you ever served as a mentor or guide to someone who was trying to follow in your footsteps? Briefly describe the experience.
NASA assembled a brain trust at Langley, called the Space Task Group. This was a semi-autonomous working group, composed mainly of engineers from Flight Research and PARD. Their mission, codenamed Project Mercury, was to launch a manned craft into orbit, research the effect of space travel on humans, and ensure safe reentry to Earth of both the astronaut and the spacecraft.
Katherine’s workspace was abuzz with talk of space. NASA’s top engineers from Flight Research and PARD were discussing orbital mechanics, rocket propulsion, reentry, solar system physics, and trajectories. Katherine hung on every word of these discussions, angling for every opportunity she could get to hear even snippets of conversation. She yearned to be part of these meetings and conversations and knew that she had valuable skills to offer.
Langley presented engineers with a grueling research review process. To get a technical report published, an engineer needed to present it at an editorial meeting, during which a committee of subject matter experts would review and scrutinize every detail of the report while grilling the researcher on the soundness of the information within it. The committee was...
One young American who breathlessly followed the progress of Sputnik and the reaction to it was a rising high school senior from North Carolina named Christine Mann. While she was fully aware of the racism that defined so much of her experience as an African-American, she still thought of herself as an American—and a patriotic one, at that.
Christine had attended The Allen School, widely considered to be one of the finest all-black high schools in the country, with students from as far away as New York. In the eleventh grade, she discovered a passion for mathematics and began to consider a future that would allow her to explore this further. For her and her classmates, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education had been a moment for celebration, but also anxiety: if they were forced to attend school and compete with white students, would they be smart enough to succeed?
Christine had always been fascinated by the idea of space and now saw that the subject had been thrust to the forefront of the national conversation. As a proud American, she didn’t want to let the Soviets dominate the universe beyond the Earth’s orbit, and she was determined to help her country get into...
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Why do you think the culture and environment at Langley were more conducive to integration, during an era when much of the country wasn’t?