Hidden Figures | Margot Lee Shetterly

Summary of: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
By: Margot Lee Shetterly


Dive into the untold story of the black women mathematicians who played an instrumental role in the American space race, as told in ‘Hidden Figures’ by Margot Lee Shetterly. Discover the compelling journey of these women who broke through racial and gender barriers to work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, amidst a segregated environment. These extraordinary women were at the forefront of developments such as World War II, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement, as well as the shift to electronic computing. Their personal stories and exceptional talents illuminate a crucial, yet often overlooked, chapter in American history.

Hidden Figures Unveiled

Learn about the hidden contributions of black female mathematicians to NASA’s space exploration programs in the mid-20th century.

Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon and back may have made him a household name, but the crucial contributions of the behind-the-scenes team that made it possible are not as well known. This book delves into the stories of the black female mathematicians who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia, playing a major role in the United States’ mid-20th-century developments such as World War II, the Cold War and the space race.

Before the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) was formed in 1958, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was its precursor, where warplanes and other flight machines were developed. In the 1940s, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory hired its first black employees as “computers” to perform mathematical computations. However, racial discrimination prevented black people from accessing such jobs.

With pioneering civil-rights activists like A. Philip Randolph’s threat to send 100,000 protesters to march on the capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Orders 8802 and 9346 to desegregate the defence industry and create the Fair Employment Practices Committee, respectively. These orders enabled black women to work at Langley, but the workplace remained segregated, with the first group of black women known as the “West Computers” working separately from white employees.

However, they were still at the heart of Langley’s operations and made significant contributions to the United States’ space exploration. Their story is not only critical in the history of the space race and the development of electronic computing but also the civil rights movement. Though some of these women like Katherine Johnson have been duly recognized, many remain unknown.

This book effectively uncovers the hidden figures behind NASA’s space journey, whose vital contribution no one can overlook, even though they were invisible for years.

Hidden Figures

Against all odds, a group of brilliant black women mathematicians helped launch the US aircraft industry during World War II.

In the 1940s, the reality for black Americans was that there were specific job roles reserved for them. The ladies of the West Computer group, however, were in a different league. Despite the chances of landing a job in an aeronautics lab like Langley being slim, the demand for mathematicians during World War II opened up opportunities. Langley was in need of more mathematicians to make calculations and maximize power, safety, and efficiency for the new airplane designs. Consequently, this marked the birth of the modern US aircraft industry, and it would jump from being the nation’s forty-third largest industry to the largest industry in the world between 1938 and 1943. With Roosevelt’s push for racial equality in federal jobs, this opened the door for black female mathematicians.

Despite the challenges of racial discrimination, the precise number of female computers who worked at NACA is still hard to come by. One study suggests there were hundreds, possibly thousands. And as for black women, there were only around 70 between 1943 and 1980. These women endured significant difficulties to make their mark. In 1940, only 2% of black women held a university degree, and the few who did mainly taught in their hometowns. To work at NACA, they had to leave their families behind, move to a new city, and give up their teaching jobs. They also had to endure six-day workweeks and commute on overcrowded, segregated buses.

The book, Hidden Figures, details the story of these smart black women and reveals how they helped launch the US’s aircraft industry. Their achievement opened the door for women and Africans in America to pursue their passions and freed the aviation sector from the limits facing pilots and engineers.

Triumph over Adversity

The book highlights the struggles that black women endured in a predominantly white research organization over 50 years ago. They faced racism, segregation, and discrimination in housing, office facilities, and even in the dining hall. Nevertheless, the black computers remained strong and determined in their pursuit of success. The book recounts the inspiring story of Miriam Mann, who removed a dining hall sign that read “Colored Computers” and sparked a series of similar protests that eventually forced the management to stop hanging the sign. Katherine Johnson was another pioneer who overcame the discriminatory practices. She refused to use the designated black bathroom and went on to become the first woman in the flight-research division to author her own report on orbital flight. Despite the challenging circumstances, these women demonstrated resilience and an unwavering commitment to effecting change.

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