Des Breen looks at the remarkable story of how black women, firmly ensconced in segregationist America, played such a pivotal role in the US space programme, a counterpoint to long-running stereotypes
IN the 1940s, when southern white Americans looked at black women — if they noticed them at all — they saw a cleaner, a maid, or maybe at a push, a teacher in an all-black school; what they didn’t see was a mathematician who was helping to design the airplanes that were winning the war. Nor could they have conceived of a female ‘negro’ scientist who would, 25 years later, contribute to putting an American on the moon.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s revelatory book, Hidden Figures, paints a picture of a little-known struggle in pre-civil rights America, when a group of courageous black women used their mental abilities to carve out a place for themselves at the front of the race into space — this at a time when sitting at the front of the bus could have seen them spat at, beaten, and imprisoned.
Focusing on three particularly influential figures — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson — Shetterly begins her story at the Langley Virginia Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at NACA, the forerunner to NASA, where aircraft were tested and retested to maximise speed and efficiency. In the days before computers, mathematicians — themselves called ‘computers’ — worked with pencil and paper to solve complex equations.
Virginia State was a seething hotbed of segregationism — separate schools, with black institutions starved of funds; separate tables in cafes, when African-Americans were served at all; even separate toilets in the same workspace — but, despite this, black people were recruited to work at Langley when the war effort required it.
One of the first through the door was Dorothy Vaughan, a maths teacher who worked extra hours in a laundry to help feed her four children. On her first day Vaughan was given the lowest work-grade and assigned to the West Area, an isolated facility far from the centre of the campus, where she met other black employees, all women, who toiled away crunching numbers.
Despite a progressive atmosphere at NACA, the signs of segregation were everywhere. The enormous Langley canteen has one specific table marked out for its West Area employees, where someone had placed a handwritten sign, ‘Coloured Computers’, to let them know they were confined to it. It was a young black woman called Maria Mann who initiated a small rebellion by removing the sign and placing it in her handbag. The women knew they couldn’t leave the table, but the sign rankled —none of the other tables were marked ‘For Whites’. Each day the notice was replaced and each day Maria removed it, until finally, one lunchtime the women came into eat and the sign was gone. It was a small battle — the segregated office and bathrooms remained — but it was still a battle won. That was the way it would be in the coming years, a series of small incidents, each pushing back the segregationist envelope of racist attitudes.
Vaughan revelled in the world of numbers, listening to the scientists, learning about the real-world implications of her work, serving an apprenticeship not usually given to African-American women. When her white supervisor went on long-term sick leave, Dorothy stepped in, and, for a while, nobody noticed she was in charge. When they did, the supervisory role became permanent.
For a black woman in the American south it was an enormous step, probably not one possible outside a Federal facility like NACA, but a step toward equality nonetheless.
Mary Jackson came to Langley in 1951. As the leader of an all-black girls’ scout troop, she had been shocked to hear her young charges sing the folk song ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ and promptly banned it. African-American girls had enough to deal with without racially stereotyping themselves.
Jackson, a maths lecturer at an all-black college, had brains to burn and at NACA she showed it, but it was a moment of humiliation over a toilet break that provided the step-up she needed.
While working on equations with some white women she politely asked them where the toilet was, only to find herself laughed at. “How would we know where your toilets are?” they asked.
Furious, she took the matter to a superior, who was white, a Catholic, and a scientist at the base. As she let loose she realised she might be putting her job in jeopardy — black people had to learn to read whites, determine their attitudes before they spoke up. In this case she was lucky, he just looked at her and said: “You’re coming to work for me.” For Jackson, it was the beginning of a long and ever-developing career in the aeronautics industry.
The world changed in October 1957 when the USSR put a satellite, Sputnik One, into the Earth’s orbit. The White House was shocked. Russian radio stations made daily announcements stating which US cities it would be visible from and at what time, allowing every American to see this example of Communist superiority twinkling in the night sky. While the fact that one third of Soviet scientists were women, and they came from all races across the the USSR, wasn’t lost on many Americans who worried about their education system, other citizens of the US, especially in the southern states, were still fighting a 19th century battle to exclude people of colour from the best schools and universities. It was at this time too, that NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, its scientists ordered by Washington to catch up with their Cold War rivals.
Katherine Johnson came to Langley as a maths prodigy, only to find herself excluded from meetings of senior mathematicians, not just because she was black, but also because she was a woman. She wasn’t a person who took no for an answer, however. Johnson had been one of three black students selected to lead the integration of West Virginia University.
At NASA she repeatedly requested to attend senior meetings over a period of years, until, eventually, she was allowed ‘sit in’. It was the crack in the door she needed. In 1959, it was Johnson who completed a report calculating the launch parameters that would propel the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space.
In 1961, John Glenn specifically requested that Johnson do the calculations for his spaceflight with the words: ‘Get the girl, if she says the figures are OK, then I’m ready to go.’
Author Margot Lee Shetterly rightly points out that through the 1960s, as many white southerners battled with the National Guard to oppose the education of African-Americans, it was a black woman, Katherine Johnson, who did the complex mathematics that helped synchronise Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module. A black woman’s work contributed to putting an American on the moon before a Soviet boot print could be left in the lunar dust.
Years later, she also worked on the space shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986, after 33 years at NASA and in 2015 President Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
Shetterly’s book vividly tells the story of the African-American women who helped win the space race for America, and contributed to the fight for racial equality in their homeland.
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