This February, Black History month, I reread Margot Lee Shetterly’s terrific historical narrative, “Hidden Figures.” When it was the Columbia One Read selection a few years ago, I discovered a story that had been missing in the American history books I grew up with in the late 1950s and early 60s when I attended McLean High School in northern Virginia.
At that time, there were no students or faculty of color at my otherwise extremely progressive high school. The only person of color in my high school yearbooks was a janitor. Why? Because the ugly reality of Jim Crow laws were stubbornly enforced in Virginia for a decade after the Supreme Court struck down segregation in “Brown vs. the Board of Education” (1954). Thus, although the brilliant women depicted in “Hidden Figures” lived and worked for NASA’s space program in the same state of Virginia as I did, theirs was a world of “Colored Only” schools, bathrooms, and water fountains.
Here is the backstory to “Hidden Figures.” In 2010, Shetterly was visiting her parents in Hampton, Virginia where she grew up in the 1970s. After church, she visited with Mrs. Land, her favorite Sunday School teacher. Kathaleen Land—a retired NASA mathematician—was well into her nineties and still living alone. Margot’s father then related a bit of history. “A lot of the women around here, black and white, worked as computers–Kathryn Peddrew, Ophelia Taylor, Sue Wilder, and Katherine Johnson, who calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts.”
Later that morning, Margot rode shotgun in her father’s 1970s Pontiac to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center. The visit triggered memories of childhood visits to his office where she recalled seeing women computers (in pre-IBM days) working in cubicles, making “hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides.” Many were African American, and many were her grandmother’s age.
Shetterly’s father joined Langley in 1964, and retired in 2004 as an internationally respected climate scientist. His siblings and buddies were engineers or technologists. One neighbor taught physics at Hampton University, and the family’s church abounded with mathematicians. “Growing up in Hampton,” Shetterly noted, “the face of science was brown like mine…. As a child, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”
How did so many black women and men become a part of the history being made at the Langley Research Center, and why didn’t they become a part of America’s story until now? Hampton’s history is rooted in their stories. Located on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, the city lies between the confluence of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay at the Atlantic Ocean. From the beginning, geography shaped Hampton’s history.
The peninsula has been a strategic defense location for 400 years. In 1606, explorers named the site Point Comfort, making it the oldest continuously occupied English settlement in the United States. The first African slaves were brought ashore there on land that would become the United States. Hampton burned during the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. When Confederates evacuated the area in 1861, slaves sought refuge at Hampton’s Union-held Fort Monroe. They rebuilt the town—making it the first self-contained African American community in the United States. They also established Hampton University, site of the famous Emancipation Oak where former slaves gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read.
For the past 100 years, Hampton has been a center of military aviation training, research and development—from early prop planes and Zeppelins to WWII jets and bombers, to design of rocket parts and space flight. The B-29 Superfortress my father piloted in the Pacific during WWII was first tested at the Langley Research Facility.
The black women in “Hidden Figures” served as mathematicians, computers and engineers in the decades that followed when America was caught up in the race to the moon and space exploration. Her book is the story of women and men of color who participated in some of NASA’s greatest achievements while facing racial and gender challenges still festering in America today. They are American heroes, and their contributions to America’s history have finally received the praise they deserve.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.