On Christmas 2016, Hidden Figures brought the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – three pioneering Black women mathematicians – to the big screen. Their work behind the scenes at NASA formed the calculations responsible for successfully sending John Glenn into orbit around the earth. While history books recorded this feat from the astronaut’s perspective, historians have failed to adequately represent the masterminds behind NASA’s early accomplishments. Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were “Hidden Figures.” Hidden Figures offers us the accurate history of the events leading up to the launch of the “Friendship 7” in 1962 and restores a sense of humanity to all of the African American women who made it possible.
Although their pure brilliance is impressive enough, what makes the efforts of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson truly groundbreaking is the way they traversed a tumultuous social climate in order to change the course of history. In a Jim Crow segregated south, these women overcame daily adversity in the workplace quite similar to what’s seen today through the #BlackWomenAtWork movement. While they performed the same work as their white counterparts, African American women were paid less, and relegated to separate bathroom and dining facilities. Further, many of these women were forced to retake courses that they had already passed to meet NASA’s requirements ….and were still skipped over for promotions.
Though African Americans, especially women, were considered second-class citizens, America needed all hands on deck to ensure advancement in the global Space Race on the brink of World War II. With the agitation of A. Philip Randolph, the Black father of the labor movement, as well as the needed for more bodies and brains in the preparation for war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, forbidding “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” This landmark order opened the door for African American women to occupy new positions in the workforce.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were not the only “human computers” to work in the West Area division of the Langley Research Center for NASA. However, they were exemplars who rose through the ranks during a time when women were not typically considered for advanced positions.
Johnson became NASA’s first African American aerospace technologist (eventually winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom), Vaughan became NASA’s first African American manager, and Jackson became the first Black female engineer at NASA. In each instance, these women transcended racial barriers with dignity and class while making it possible for other African Americans to follow in their footsteps.
Hidden Figures is a literal depiction of #BlackGirlMagic. It serves as a timely reminder that we must continue to protect the legacy of unparalleled African American achievement in this country. With the current dearth of African Americans pursuing careers in the STEM fields relative to other racial and ethnic groups, this film motivates us and highlights role models that we (and our children) can strive to become.
The Black women who spearheaded these aerospace efforts are unsung heroes who epitomize the values of resilience, perseverance, and persistence. If you have not seen the film, go get your daily dose of Black history and let us know that you agree!