It is hard to fathom these days that the word “computer” once meant a person rather than a machine. What is even harder to fathom is how during the 1960s, when race and gender tensions were in and out of the news, the black women mathematicians responsible for computing the complex trajectories that would put America’s first astronauts into orbit were hidden from the headlines.
Earlier this year, staff and patrons of the Greensboro Public Library selected Margot Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” for the 2017 One City, One Book program. Shetterly, author of that critically-acclaimed bestselling history of the human computers whose calculations put astronaut John Glenn safely into his historic 1962 orbit, will speak at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28. She will also speak at Guilford Technical Community College’s Koury Auditorium at the Jamestown campus at noon that same day; both events are free and open to the public.
Published in September of 2016 to much advance publicity, “Hidden Figures” follows the lives and careers of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. These mathematicians faced discrimination while working at The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and then The National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the early years of the Space Program. The book also follows Christine Darden, the mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer who was the first African-American woman promoted into the Senior Executive Service for her research into supersonic flight and sonic booms.
The book was optioned by Hollywood before publication, and the film adaptation, released in December of 2016, starred Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe as Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively. The Monroe-born Darden (omitted from the movie to compress its timeline to the length of a commercially-viable theatrical release) is not the book’s only North Carolina connection.
Katherine G. Moore, the daughter of Johnson, lives in Greensboro and is an alumna of Bennett College, where she was active in the 1960s sit-ins and delivered this year’s commencement address. The book’s author hails from a neighboring state. As the daughter of a NASA research scientist Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many other African-Americans with relatives working for the Space Program. Her moment of epiphany came in 2010 where she and her husband had been living in Mexico as content marketers and editorial consultants to the tourism industry. But while on a visit to her family home, her father began telling the couple about some of his female colleagues at the historic Langley Research Center, NASA’s first field research center.
“My husband said it was a great story he’d never heard before,” Shetterly told me in a recent phone conversation. “And I realized a lot of other people had never heard it, either.”
Deciding to change that, she worked on the project for six years, conducting her first interview in 2010 and turning in the final draft to her publisher William Morrow in July of 2016. Her agent began shopping the book to publishers in the summer of 2013 and closed the deal with Morrow in the spring of 2014.
“People were interested and curious from the start,” she told me. “They kept asking why they’d never heard this story before.”
She explained that her book was a voyage of discovery, one which she learned more and more about the community in which she’d grown up.
“It was a way of dealing with that without me being in the story,” she said. “Over the course of time, I learned a lot about people I knew as a child and teenager, and also things that had previously happened in my hometown, from World War II or even before that.”
Although not unusually long for a substantial project, six years still represented a considerable amount of time and effort. She told me that she’d never doubted that she would finish the book, but called “the question of how and when” a real learning curve. She said her husband made rounding that curve easier. When they met, he was finishing his first book “The Americano,” a biography of William Morgan, the United States citizen who became a commandant (major) in Castro’s Cuban revolution. This gave her an up-close view of what it took to research and write a nonfiction book. She said having observed that process was very useful when it came time for her to write her own, and that she was hugely grateful, “I had this amazing support and sounding board in-house.”
I asked her how it felt in 2015 when President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to then 97-year-old Katherine Johnson, one of the main figures in her book.
“It was wonderful,” she said and called the honor very well-deserved. She added that Johnson’s long-due recognition for her pioneering work wasn’t the only wonderful thing about the occasion. “It also provided us with the opportunity to see the work that women mathematicians did as a group.”
She added that on Sept. 22, a new lab at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia, would be officially named the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. She said she looked forward to seeing and personally congratulating Johnson at the ceremony.
“She just turned 99 years old, and is doing great,” she said.
I asked Shetterly about her ongoing work with the Human-Computer Project, which she calls a “virtual museum” dedicated to the work of the female mathematicians who helped America’s aeronautics and space programs.
“One of the things of the things that surprised me about my original research,” she said, “was how many women of all ethnicities were involved in the space program.” She called the Human-Computer Project one of the results of that discovery and said it is dedicated to documenting all the women involved.
“Not just human computers, but government contractors and engineers,” she said. “It’s really an attempt to take a historical look at women in computing.”
This past April Shetterly was the commencement speaker at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she told students to “dream big, have courage.” She also spoke of how UNCG alumna Virginia Tucker became one of the first members of the human-computer pool at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now Langley Research Center) in 1935, and by the early 1940s was the head computer, managing hundreds of women in computing sections across the laboratory. Another historically important figure, long-hidden by the media’s concentration on the white men who rocketed into orbit, was NASA’s first black female engineer Mary Jackson. Jackson’s story is among those told in Shetterly’s book and its 2017 film adaptation, where she is played by Janelle Monáe.
I asked Shetterly about her words of encouragement for students in what sometimes feels like dark and anxious times.
“The world seems to be in a difficult time,” she replied, “but it’s always a difficult time. It’s important to not just have courage, but to help others.”
She said Jackson was an exemplar of that, “not just for her talents, but her career as an individual. She’s a great role model for people going out into the world today.”
She also said that she’s excited to return to Greensboro’s One City, One Book.
“It’s great to have “Hidden Figures” chosen as a subject for this,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see continued momentum and interest in the book. I’m excited to come back to Greensboro and talk to people who have such great enthusiasm for it.”
One person who feels that enthusiasm is Beth Sheffield, programming and readers advisory specialist at Greensboro Public Library, who sat down with me to talk about the Greensboro One City, One Book program.
One City, One Book is the generic name for a variety of programs across the U.S. that expand upon the idea of a book discussion club in an attempt to get everyone in the same city or metropolitan area to read and discuss the same book. The first known program, “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” began in 1998 by Nancy Pearl at Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book. Other cities followed, and the Library of Congress lists nearly 500 such programs across the nation.
Sheffield told me that she expects this to be Greensboro’s most successful One City, One Book yet.
“We started in 2002 with Ernest Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying” and we’ve just had phenomenal community response with it,” Sheffield said. Since its local inauguration, she said that the program, which occurs every two years, has “brought a lot of new partners to the table,” and “Hidden Figures” is bringing even more.
“It is just such a great book to discuss because it empowers people,” Sheffield said. “Not just by talking about the women in the space program and about how people overcome adversity, but it also empowerment through education.”
She said that the book clubs she partners with via the library had expressed an unparalleled enthusiasm for this year’s selection. “With this project, we have over 50 book clubs that have signed on to read and discuss this book, and we’ll have plenty of community discussions with at the branches with facilitators.”
She called the book perfect for sparking “a thoughtful conversation, whether with your neighbor or someone you don’t know,” adding that it’s a particularly good way to get to know others in one’s community.
She explained that she first read “Hidden Figures” very early in the process of choosing the 2017 selection. “The way we choose our books is that we actually have a committee that gets together and takes suggestions from the community.”
These suggestions are taken from the end of one project to the beginning of the next, and then the committee winnows down the selections to a shorter list. “This year we chose four books and actually had the community vote on our choice, and they picked ‘Hidden Figures,’” she said.
A self-described “science geek,” Sheffield said she was delighted with the final vote, especially in light of how author Shetterly wove the early history of NACA and NASA in with the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s also really interesting because it speaks to the hidden in our community,” she said, explaining that it that relates “to how people have these amazing lives and do these amazing, incredible things, and yet they say they’re just doing their jobs, which is what these women whose calculations made the space program possible did.”
While Shetterly’s appearance at Guilford College’s Dana Auditorium at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Sept. 28, is the centerpiece of this year’s One City, One Book, the program continues through early November with a wide variety of events celebrating science, women, the space program, the civil rights movement and the “hidden figures” in our society. The two-part “She Blinded Me with Science” series celebrating four African-American women in new generation STEM careers will take place at the Vance H. Chavis branch from 3 to 5 p.m. on Oct. 1 and at the McNairy branch at 7 p.m. on Nov. 2. The film series “Outer Space Vixens” will show such 1950s sci-fi films such as Queen of Outer Space and Devil Girl from Mars at various branches and times through October.
Other events include, but are not limited to, rocketry demonstrations and astronomical lectures. On Nov. 12, there will a “Swing on the Stars” semi-formal party and dance from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Central Library, featuring music from the Piedmont Swing Society.
For more information and the full schedule of program events (far too extensive to list here), follow @ocob.gso on Facebook or @GSOLibrary on Twitter or call the central Greensboro Public Library at (336) 373-2471.