Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures Summary

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Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” who used slide rules, adding machines, and pencils to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets into space. These African American female problem solvers were some of the brightest minds of their generation. Restricted to teaching math in the segregated schools of the South, they were called upon during the labor shortages that occurred during World War II. The situation was so dire that America’s aeronautics industry was willing to hire anyone, regardless of color, who had the right skills to get the job done. Suddenly, these overlooked math geniuses had a chance at jobs worthy of their skills, being asked to relocate to Hampton, Virginia and the fast-paced environment of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Dorothy Vaughan, a highly intelligent black high school teacher applies for a position at Langley. She is eventually hired at twice the pay of her teaching job. She and her family move to Newport News, Virginia, and for the first time experience the segregated bus system. The local transit system is inundated with new patrons due to the vast amount of people who have moved into the area to find work. Dorothy begins her job alongside other black women at West Computing in Langley. Not only are they segregated in their work, they are also expected to eat at a table marked “colored computers.” Their manager, Miriam Mann, hides the table sign until management gives up and stops labeling the table.

At the same time Dorothy Vaughan is navigating her new life at Langley, Katherine Johnson (nee Coleman) also comes to work at the facility for much the same reason. Katherine was an early high school graduate who eventually went on to attend college on a scholarship. A bright and charismatic young woman, she was chosen to be one of three black students to integrate into a white college. Katherine married Jimmy Goble and was forced to drop out of the graduate program when she learned she was pregnant.

The story shifts back to Dorothy Vaughan as she continues to build her life in Newport News. Although engineering is still a male-dominated industry, researchers working to break the sound barrier need women on the ground at the testing site to analyze the data. While several women in the West Computing group go on to achieve great things, Dorothy eventually becomes the head of the group when the former supervisor becomes ill and dies.

The third woman highlighted in the book is Mary Jackson. Mary, a math teacher who takes a job at the USO during the war, is a humanitarian-minded individual who led the Girl Scout group at the school where she taught. She impressed upon the girls under her tutelage not to put limits on themselves. She begins working at Langley in a clerical position and eventually becomes a computer. The controversy following the Rosenberg investigation creates a degree of racial tension at Langley, resulting in the firing of a black woman. Civil rights leaders condemn the United States for attempting to make allies of “black and brown countries” while discriminating against its own black citizens. As a result, President Truman desegregates the armed forces and calls for the fair and equal treatment of black government workers. As a result of this new government initiative, Mary Jackson is asked to work on a project on the East Side. She is verbally abused and laughed at by the white computers when she inquires about a colored bathroom. Jackson complains to her supervisor and is eventually moved to a different assignment.

The book jumps back to Katherine Johnson who, upon learning about jobs being made available to black mathematicians, decides to move with her family to Newport News where she, too, begins working at Langley as a computer. She is assigned a job at the Flight Research Division where, on her first day, she encounters racism when a white computer whom she sat next to got up abruptly and went looking for another seat. She decided not to take this action personally, which resulted in the two eventually becoming friends.

Eventually, Katherine’s job seems on the verge of becoming permanent. Dorothy Vaughan is eventually able to move the needle and get Katherine hired. Vaughan had approached Katherine’s supervisor with an ultimatum: either give her a raise or send her back to West Computing. Katherine is eventually hired permanently. One of her first assignments is to research the crash of a small plane. Her finding subsequently leads to sweeping changes to air traffic control regulations to avoid wake turbulence accidents. She is well liked and fits in adequately with the team. Although she is not immune to segregation, her experiences are somewhat different given the more progressive nature of her coworkers and, because she is light skinned, people are often uncertain of her heritage.

Eventually, Katherine goes on to assist with the calculations for John Glenn’s orbital space flight after Glenn requests that she personally check the numbers generated by the mechanical computer. Her subsequent popularity increases and her calculations are pivotal to the success of the future Apollo 11 mission and many others.

Mary Jackson eventually takes a job with Human Resources at NASA, where she is an avid spokesperson for the advancement of women’s careers. While Dorothy Vaughan never achieves her final goal, she is, however, recognized for the work she did at Langley, making it possible for subsequent generations of women to work in the mathematics and science fields.