Story of mathematicians more than Black or women’s history
The formerly untold story of Black women mathematicians is “an American history story,” states Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly. “There is a lot of history hiding in the shadows,” and the Black women whose work helped the United States eventually win the space race are uniquely part of it, she noted.
Shetterly spoke February 21 on the University of Minnesota campus, took student questions at the school’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and then later appeared in front of a sold-out audience at Northrop Auditorium as part of the Distinguished Carlson Lecture series. Her best-selling book Hidden Figures is about Black women from the World War II years in the 1940s who worked at a NASA Hampton, Virginia lab “at a time when they were segregated from the schoolyard to the graveyard,” said Shetterly.
Beginning with “five Black women” in 1943, “I believe if you count all 10 [NASA] labs from 1943 to 1980 there have been 80 Black women as “human computers,” mathematicians and scientists, Shetterly explained. “It was just as remarkable that these Black women were part of the female cohort of all backgrounds that started in 1935 as 700 strong, and more than 1,000 women working as professional mathematicians, getting up and going to work at NASA every single day for decades. These women’s lives intersected many other lives, but why has it taken decades for us to tell their story?
“Why weren’t these women turned into role models for girls?” she asked. “The answer has to be more than the fact that the work was classified. Another reason was the physical separation. The Black women were less visible in a segregated office from the White women. There were ‘colored’ bathrooms and ‘colored’ [lunch] tables.
“Furthermore, all women were separated from the men,” she continued. “In the beginning the Black women went into one door of the computing office. And I believe the biggest reason…[was because] for decades computing was considered women’s work. Most of these women — regardless of their race — saw themselves as professionals, but they were [listed] below the men [scientists and engineers], including the Black men who were hired in the 1950s.”
During an on-stage “conversation” with Minneapolis native and Peabody Award-winning journalist and author Michele Norris, Shetterly told the audience how Black newspapers were instrumental in researching for the book.
“It would have been just harder or nearly impossible without Black newspapers,” she admitted. “The Black newspapers cataloged every detail of Black life.”
Shetterly also told the Northrop audience that there are several “Minnesota connections” to her book, including Hampton president Malcolm McLean in the 1940s who was from the state. He set up World War II training classes for many of the estimated 80 Black women mathematicians at the HBCU. The late Mrs. Miriam Mann, who was among the first group of women in the class, is featured in Hidden Figures.
“Mrs. Mann decided to take the [‘colored’] sign away” that hung in the segregated lab and kept taking it down “until one day the sign was gone for good,” said Shetterly, who added that Mann showed a lot of courage for defiantly protesting against Jim Crow. “It was a victory for the Black women, for human dignity in that workplace.”
Mann’s granddaughter is Macalester College professor Duchess Harris, said Shetterly to a round of applause from the audience.
“It truly made me feel I can do anything that I put my mind to because she set a precedent,” said graduate student Moriah Stephens of Minneapolis after she heard Shetterly at Northrop.
Doctoral student Abiola Abo-Bakr of Minneapolis added, “I love the part where she talked about the importance of the Black media. I’m excited about getting her autograph.”
When asked about the Oscar-nominated movie based on her book that came out in December, the author admitted, “I’ve seen the movie seven times. Each time I enjoyed the movie, both as a moviegoer and as a writer…and [I am] really pleased with how it turned out,” especially how “the spirit of the three women” featured in the film was uniquely captured.
During her meeting with students, Minnesota second-year doctoral student Adrienne Sands of Nashville asked Shetterly about those who don’t believe the story or believe it was exaggerated for purposes of the film.
“I’ve read the skeptical conversation and debates,” responded the author. “The fact is that these women spent the better part [of the 20th century] — more than half a century — as professional mathematicians. We have the reports that they worked on, and [I’ve] spoke with people they worked with who are still alive.”
Sands told the MSR she was impressed with how the author has addressed the skeptics. She also understands the Black women because she is one of only two Black women in her math graduate program, said Sands.
“It has been a great day,” Shetterly told the MSR before she signed audience members’ copies of her book.
As Black History Month ends and Women’s History Month begins, “It is tempting to slot Hidden Figures into Black history or women’s history,” surmised Shetterly. “We tend to see these months as removed from American history or World War II history. But Black history is also the history of World War II. Aviation history cannot be told without talking about women.
“Virginia history is incomplete without the story of Langley Institute,” continued Shetterly. “And the Black women who worked [there] were graduates of HBCUs — Hampton Institute, Morgan State, and West Virginia State.”
As a result, Shetterly said, her book is the “quintessential American story.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.