‘Hidden Figures’ author to speak at UM

Margot Lee Shetterly’s book on black female mathematicians at NASA during the ’60s has gained national attention through new film

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

There’s a scene in the new movie “Hidden Figures” when NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, leads dozens of African-American women to their new assignment in the room where a huge new IBM computer sits.

The sight of dozens of black women clicking down a hallway in high heels and sleek 1961 business attire brings home the point that there were many doing such jobs at NASA, not just one or two.

“There were huge numbers of women who were working at NASA as professional mathematicians for the greater part of a century, we just haven’t paid attention to it until now,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” (HarperCollins).

It’s safe to say that the country is enjoying a bit of a “Hidden Figures” moment. The movie, inspired by Shetterly’s book and starring Spencer, Kevin Costner, Taraji P. Hensen, Kirsten Dunst and Janelle Monae, vanquished the latest “Star Wars” movie for the No. 1 rank at the box office for the second week in a row. The book sits atop the New York Times’ paperback bestseller list, and the Young Adult version also leads its New York Times category.

The first-time author will give a lecture about “Hidden Figures” at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan on Jan. 24, followed by a fireside chat and book signing.

Shetterly takes pains to point out that “Hidden Figures” is not a story about “the first” or “the only” African-American anything, at NASA.

Women and African Americans had been working at Langley Research Center, later NASA-Langley, for decades, since a 1943 wartime program helped math-proficient women get civil service jobs as human “computers,” crunching numbers by hand, pen or pencil, and paper (and adding machines). Black women were able to get a foothold in the computing department because there weren’t enough white women to fill the jobs.

The film focuses on three of the more notable women — Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monae) — and shows how these unheralded black female mathematicians helped America pass Russia in the space race, putting a man on the moon in 1969.

The women weren’t hidden. They, and their stories, were hiding in plain sight.

Even their friends and neighbors in Hampton, Virginia, where NASA-Langley is located, weren’t aware of the full story, Shetterly said.

“I was just in Hampton yesterday, and now that the movie has come out, there is no place on earth more excited than Hampton,” said Shetterly, 47, from Charlottesville, Virginia, home. “Everyone knew these women, and that they worked at NASA. But they say things like, ‘Oh my God, I knew her from church and I knew she was a smart lady, but I had no idea.’ ”

The first-time author will give a lecture about “Hidden Figures” at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Tuesday Jan. 24, followed by a fireside chat and book signing.

While in Hampton, Shetterly visited Johnson, 98, at her nearby retirement home. The author says she believes the fact that one of the women she profiled in “Hidden Figures” is still alive adds resonance to the story. She reports that Johnson is happy with the movie’s depiction of her life and career, although the retired NASA employee also opined that it was “no big deal,” she and the other women mathematicians were just doing their jobs.

Shetterly is the daughter of a NASA employee herself; her father was a research scientist at NASA Langley. Thus she knew growing up that there were many black professionals working at Langley.

“I was always good at math, but not mathematician-good-at-math,” said Shetterly, who worked in finance for some years. “Katherine Johnson is the kind of person who dreams in numbers. I‘m good, but I don’t dream in numbers.”

She is glad that the film hired a math consultant who made sure the figures Henson and the other actresses are writing furiously on blackboards are in the realm of possible.

Although it may seem that the “Hidden Figures” women persevered as math prodigies despite having to attend segregated, second-rate schools, the facts aren’t that simple. For one thing, the teaching staff at historically black colleges — the only one the women were allowed to attend — was actually of the highest caliber.

That’s because brilliant African-American mathematicians who studied at Ivy League schools were not allowed to teach at Ivy League schools.

“So at (historically black colleges) Fisk and Hampton University and West Virginia State University, they had the crème de la crème of black intellectuals teaching there,” Shetterly said. “For example, Katherine Johnson was taught by a man named W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, who was the third African American to get a Ph.D in math — he got his at the University of Pennsylvania. But he taught at West Virginia State Institute, as they called it then, because he couldn’t get a job at a white school. He was considered one of the brightest, most-gifted young mathematicians of his generation, and she got firsthand instruction from this guy. So you ask these women, and they say, ‘We got spectacular educations.’ These black schools concentrated talent in a way that was part of the double-edged sword of segregation.”

The film version of “Hidden Figures” went into production before Shetterly was done writing the book — “Shakespeare in Love” and “Silver Linings Playbook” producer Donna Gigliotti saw promise in her book proposal and optioned it for a film.

Shetterly loved that the story takes place in mid-century America, placing these African-American women in context as all-American heroes, driven by love for their country, despite segregation and Jim Crow laws.

“Hidden Figures” has excited women scientists of all ethnicities, Shetterly said.

“There are so many women who see themselves in this,” the author said. “Black women particularly, but women of all backgrounds, in science and math careers, are saying ‘Wow, this takes place in 1962, but that happened to me yesterday — they thought I was the secretary.’ Things like that happened because we had this idea of who was a scientist or engineer, and that didn’t include women and certainly not black women.”

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.

Learn more

Margo Lee Shetterly will give a lecture at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. At 7 p.m. there will be a fireside chat at UM’s Stamps Auditorium, followed by a book signing and reception. Books will be available to purchase.

There are several Michigan connections to NASA and “Hidden Figures.” Jim Williams, the first black engineer at Langley and NASA, went to UM, as did Thomas Byrdsong, another black engineer. And Dorothy Hoover, who started out in 1943 in the segregated computing pool, West Computing, left Langley in 1952 to do graduate work at UM.

Susan Whitall

“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” (HarperCollins), by Margo Lee Shetterly.