So much to read, so little time? Get an overview of Hidden Figures , the true story about the African American female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures tells the incredible real-life account of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden—who, in a time when black women faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, went to work as “calculators” at NASA. With pencils, paper, and slide rules, they transformed airplane, rocket, and satellite designs—and ensured a World War II victory. Despite the social and political climate at the height of Jim Crow, these women rose up and became integral to the project that put the first man on the moon. From World War II to the Cold War to the civil rights movement to the space race, Hidden Figures tells the story of four remarkable women whose contributions to science led to some of NASA’s greatest successes. The book has become a New York Times bestseller as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award–winning and Academy Award–nominated picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner. With historical context, important quotes, fascinating trivia, a glossary of terms, and other features, this summary and analysis of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is intended to complement your reading experience and bring you closer to a great work of nonfiction.
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Summary and Analysis 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
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chapter One: A Door Opens
In 1943, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was vastly undermanned. To meet staffing demands, women were hired as "computers," mathematicians who did the calculations for the engineers — which was unusual even in post — World War II America, where men still dominated scientific and technical jobs.
Langley sent female scouts up and down the East Coast in search of white women with the skill and talent necessary to support their growing demand. But they were still unable to fill the empty positions. Thanks to two executive orders issued by President Roosevelt in 1941, Negro Americans had become eligible for civil service jobs through the desegregation of the defense industry. It's here that Langley found the talent it needed.
As Langley began to hire qualified Negro female candidates, they built accommodations to house this new pool of workers. While the folks at Langley were accustomed to seeing Negroes in unskilled roles, such as groundskeepers and janitors, it was something entirely different to consider black women as professional peers. Little did they know, these women would help land the United States on the moon.
The Langley Laboratory played a key role in US aeronautics history. The testing group was made up of civilians on the Langley government installation called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the predecessor to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
Chapter Two: Mobilization
Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910. As her mother passed away when Dorothy was only two years old, her stepmother raised Dorothy as her own and encouraged her to excel academically. This focus on education served Dorothy well, earning her a full scholarship to Wilberforce University, the nation's oldest private Negro college. Although encouraged by her family and professors to pursue her graduate degree in mathematics at Howard University, the cost seemed extravagant in the wake of the Great Depression. After graduation she opted instead to join the workforce and support her family, becoming a teacher in 1929.
During World War II, as fighting raged overseas, there was always an influx of new civil service job postings at the local post office. In 1943, Dorothy caught sight of two such postings: one for a position in the Camp Pickett laundry center, where she could earn extra money during the summer; and another for a job at an aeronautical laboratory seeking people with a mathematical background. Dorothy completed both job applications, fairly sure she'd be hired in the laundry, but excited about the prospect of working at a well-paying job at the lab.
Chapter Three: Past Is Prologue
Dorothy Vaughan was a fixture in the Farmville school system, holding her students to exceedingly high standards. As expected, during the summer she worked in the laundry at Camp Pickett, earning forty cents per hour.
Later that year, Dorothy finally received a letter hiring her for the position of Mathematician, Grade P-1, at Langley. Her salary would be $2,000 per year and her job was guaranteed through the end of the war. This was $850 more per year than she earned in her teaching position, and an opportunity she couldn't pass up. Her family — husband and four children — remained in Farmville while she boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Newport News, where she found a room to rent.
Chapter Four: The Double V
When Dorothy moved to Virginia, the towns and cities surrounding the harbor of Hampton Roads — Newport News, Hampton, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach — were bustling. The population had grown considerably during the war. Dorothy took the bus from her home in Newport News to and from work, facing daily the segregation that dictated where blacks could sit, enter, and exit the bus. While segregation and "separate but equal" laws were promoted as reducing racial tension, they seemed to do anything but. Black schools were ignored and left in ill repair, restaurants refused to serve black customers, and it was no rare instance when uniformed black soldiers were seen as overstepping their bounds, though they were in service to their country just like their white counterparts. Dorothy had been lucky enough to find one of the few quality career opportunities open to Negroes.
Dorothy boarded one of these segregated buses and started work at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory on December 1, 1943. It was the same day that the leaders of Great Britain, the United States, and Russia wrapped up their conference in Tehran, where they planned the invasion of Normandy in 1944 — D-Day.
Chapter Five: Manifest Destiny
On her first day at Langley, Dorothy Vaughan filled out the paperwork, received a blue badge with her photo on it, and promptly went to work in what would be referred to as the West Area. The West Area was home to such testing equipment as the massive Sixteen-foot High-Speed Tunnel — used for aeronautics testing — and a wide variety of other equipment hidden in buildings and rooms throughout the west campus.
Employees at Langley were segregated. The West Area (or West End) "computers" were all black women. Their white counterparts worked in the East Area computing pool. Margery Hannah was the West Computing's section head.
The white employees at Langley who made efforts to include or even view the campus's black employees as equal were met with disdain. In spite of this, Margery Hannah, a white woman and head of the West Area Computing pool, often invited black women over to her apartment for social functions, and one of the center's leading (white) male engineers was taken into police custody after speaking out about seeing a black man mistreated by the police.
While having to endure these unfair circumstances and social norms, the black computers of the West Area were dedicated to proving that they weren't just something to be kept separate. Rather, they would prove that they were equal to, if not better than, many of their white peers.
Chapter Six: War Birds
The Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots, won critical adoration from Americans of all colors, disproving the long-held conviction by whites that Negroes were less competent and ill-suited for the rigors of war. Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan was perfecting the four-blade, propeller-powered Mustang aircraft, which was to be the fastest plane designed by Americans yet.
To drive air superiority forward, Langley invested in crash courses for the new West Area computers. At the end of the day, the ladies of the West End would dive into courses on aerodynamics, weekly labs in the center's wind tunnels, and take on homework assignments above and beyond their normal workload.
By studying the way wind flowed over a prototypical wing or fuselage, engineers could build faster aircraft piece by piece. No other laboratory could compete with Langley's wind tunnel research and their engineering talent. Assisting the engineers were the computers like Dorothy, who computed, re- computed, and checked one another's work. Frequently, Dorothy and her coworkers handled a small part of larger computations, oftentimes without specific knowledge of what the calculations were for.
When the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, Langley said that everyone at every level should feel they played a role in winning the war.
Chapter Seven: The Duration
Dorothy frequently made the trip back and forth from Hampton Road to Farmville to visit her family. Despite not knowing how long her job at Langley would last, since the war was coming to an end, she decided to make Hampton Road her permanent home in mid-1944. In the fall of 1944, her four children moved to nearby Newsome with her, leaving her husband to his varied schedule seeking out seasonal hotel-related jobs. He visited when he could and stayed close to Farmville to care for his elderly mother.
When V-J Day came in August of 1945, there was much celebration and a comparable amount of anxiety. There were massive layoffs for many who had been employed to further the war effort. Fifteen hundred Newport News shipyard workers were let go, and more than two million women workers received their walking papers by the end of August 1945.
During this postwar time, Dorothy grew close to Miriam Mann, a fellow West Area Computer. They attended social functions together outside of work and their families spent time together.
Chapter Eight: Those Who Move Forward
As long as Katherine Goble (neé Coleman) could remember, she loved to count. Her father, skilled in mathematics himself, moved his family 125 miles so she and her siblings could study at West Virginia State Institute. Her father would go to work as a bellman at the Greenbrier Hotel, where he would later meet Dorothy Vaughan's husband.
An exceptional student, Katherine started college at West Virginia State College at age fifteen in 1933. She devoured her studies, causing Dr. William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, one of the college's leading mathematicians, to handcraft advanced courses for her. It was his recommendation that she begin to prepare for a career in research mathematics. After she graduated, she went to work as a teacher in Marion, Virginia.
There, she met Jimmy Goble and they got married. She taught for two years and then left the profession to stay home. But when her husband fell ill, she took up teaching again to make up for his lost income.
In early 1940, she found Dr. Davis, the president of West Virginia State College, waiting outside her classroom door. He had selected her as one of the first graduate students to integrate West Virginia University's graduate program and she enrolled in the school's 1940 summer session. At the end of her first summer of graduate school, however, she and her husband found out they were expecting their first child, so Katherine left graduate school to be a full-time wife and mother.
Chapter Nine: Breaking Barriers
Dorothy Vaughan took leave from Langley to raise two more children, never questioning that she would return to the work she loved.
Though the government was paring down staff postwar, talented computers remained valuable resources. After Dorothy returned to work, she became a shift supervisor; in 1946, she was finally made a permanent employee.
During this time, Langley employees were sent off to the Mojave Desert to create the Dryden High-Speed Flight Research Center. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier at that facility on October 14, 1947, it was a female computer who was in charge of analyzing the data from his plane.
The East Computers was disbanded in 1947, and its members took on other projects. The remaining assignments were sent to West Computing. But soon, one of West Computing's own would get her shot at a specialized job. Dorothy Hoover, a talented mathematician, crossed over into a specialty group in 1946, working directly for one of Langley's leading white male engineers named R. T. Jones.
West Computing held a heavy workload, hiring more women of color to keep up with demand. Dorothy Vaughan continued to excel, and when the Head of the West Computing Section fell gravely ill in 1949, Dorothy was tapped to take the lead in the interim. She wouldn't be made the section's permanent head until 1951.
Chapter Ten: Home by the Sea
Mary Jackson grew up surrounded by people who challenged her to succeed. After graduating from Phenix High School with honors in 1938, she enrolled at the Hampton Institute for college, pursuing a double major in mathematics and physical science. After graduation, she became a teacher, but had to leave her position to care for her ailing father. At home in Hampton Roads, she took a job at the King Street USO as a secretary and bookkeeper.
While at the USO, she met her husband, Levi Jackson, and in 1946, they had a son, Levi Jr. In her spare time, she led the local Girl Scout troop, putting her charges through real-world rigors instead of giving them badges for projects that were less meaningful.
Feeling threatened by the rise of communism during the Cold War, the United States was looking for allies — and was becoming increasingly worried about its reputation. Foreign leaders were horrified by the treatment of blacks in America. The issue of segregation was becoming one of great concern, prompting a 1951 memo within NACA that discussed whether or not the West Area Computers was a segregated unit.
When Levi Jr. was four, Jackson returned to work and applied for civil service positions as both a clerk at Fort Monroe and a computer at Langley. Langley's West Area Computers was one of the few places where Negroes could find quality jobs, so it was always news when Dorothy Vaughan was hiring. After a mere three months on the job at Fort Monroe, she was offered a position in Dorothy Vaughan's West Computing.
Chapter Eleven: The Area Rule
Dorothy continued to dispatch Negro computers to the specialty groups throughout Langley. Yet while the black women of West Computing intermingled with the whites of other professional groups, there was no doubt that segregation remained. African Americans still had their own bathrooms, and they were not getting promoted at the same rate as the white employees. Race interrupted the equity of professional lives.
While on assignment to another section in the building, Mary Jackson casually asked her female coworkers where the restroom was. They giggled, because how would these white women know where a colored girl's bathroom was? Incensed and embarrassed, Mary made the journey back to the West End and happened upon Kazimierz Czarnecki, one of Langley's brightest engineers. In the conversation that ensued, Mary told him about what had just occurred, and on the spot, Czarnecki invited Mary to work on his team. He didn't yet know about her academic prowess, but he'd soon learn.
Chapter Twelve: Serendipity
Twelve years after she left graduate school, Katherine Goble's brother-in-law urged her and her family to move to Hampton, Virginia, where his family lived. He offered to help her husband, Jimmy, get a job painting at Langley, and urged Katherine to join Langley as a mathematician. The Gobles decided to take the chance and move to Hampton.
For the next year, Katherine's family settled into their new home. Jimmy worked as a painter and their children attended school with the black middle class. In 1952, Langley approved Katherine's application to become a computer, and in 1953, she began work. Eunice Smith, another West Computing employee, lived down the street, and the two began a carpooling routine that would span thirty years.
A mere two weeks after arriving, Dorothy Vaughan assigned Katherine to the Flight Research Division, launching her deep into the specialty of fighter planes.
Chapter Thirteen: Turbulence
After Katherine had spent six months in the employ of the Flight Research Division, Dorothy Vaughan wanted her to either return to West Computing or compel the division to hire and promote her, along with the requisite raise. As her talents had become quickly apparent, she was made permanent.
Her research in the Flight Research Division brought to light new information that would save lives and change flight patterns. Following the analysis of a propeller plane crash, she discovered that planes leave wakes, and with them, the potential of disrupting other planes crossing those paths within a certain time period.
Katherine's family bought a lot and built a home in a new housing development, furthering their climb through the black middle class. But in 1955, her husband fell ill with an inoperable tumor. He passed away in late 1956. With family, friends, and colleagues by her side, Katherine returned to work in January of 1957 — ready to begin an unexpected second act of her life.
Chapter Fourteen: Angle of Attack
1947 began with Langley buying its first electronic calculator from Bell Telephone Laboratories. What would take the most talented computers a month to calculate now took a matter of hours. The whole building shook when the machine was running.
In the mid-1950s, the center bought an IBM 604, then an IBM 650, dedicating itself to the mechanical age. Despite the machines' speed, they were prone to errors, and human computers checked and rechecked the work of these mechanical monsters. Dorothy Vaughan saw the future in these machines and quickly set to work learning to program them.
Outside the laboratory, the idea of integration was catching fire. Because of the deplorable conditions at Farmville's Negro public school, the students staged a walkout, demanding equal standards to the local white school. Farmville was the town that Dorothy had left behind in the 1940s, and her nieces and nephews were among the strikers. Their demonstration led to the landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which banned segregation in all US public schools. However, Virginia Senator Harry Byrd refused to accept the Brown v. Board of Education decision, holding that integration just wouldn't be welcomed in the South.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Copyright © 2016 Open Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Margot Lee Shetterly,
For Your Information,