In the Spotlight

The long unheralded story of a team of extraordinary African-American women.

Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton in the 1970s and ’80s, the daughter of a Hampton University English professor and a NASA research scientist. Five of her aunts and uncles were engineers or technologists, and her neighborhood was likewise populated with scientific professionals. Even so, she’d had no idea that one of the women from her church, Katherine Johnson, had worked for NASA as a “human computer” in the ’50s and ’60s, crunching formulas with pencil and slide rule to calculate the launch windows to send the first American astronauts into space. 

Spurred by an offhand comment by her father, Shetterly dug into the backstory and found out that a large contingent of women had worked behind the scenes as mathematicians in the days before electronic computers. And, a sizable portion of these women had been African-Americans. The fact that the space agency would hire black women to work in a scientific field in the Jim Crow South was something unheard of in that era. Intrigued, Shetterly set out to to piece together their personal narratives and share their story with the world.

“The story really started by connecting the dots,” says Shetterly. “I spoke with Mrs. Johnson, and then she told me the name Dorothy Vaughan. And from there I spoke with Mrs. Vaughan’s family. So it was just fanning out from one point to this whole cohort of women at Langley and the other [NASA] centers.” 

After three years of research and interviews, Shetterly compiled her material into a 55-page book proposal. After a literary agent signed her to a deal in 2014, she began the long process of shaping her original proposal into a 300-page book. She’d barely gotten started when an amazing thing happened: She received a phone call from Donna Gigliotti, the Oscar-winning producer of Shakespeare in Love and Silver Linings Playbook.

Shetterly still sounds amazed when recounting the conversation. “So Donna calls me up out of the blue and says, ‘Listen, I have your book proposal and we are going to make a movie.’ And I was like, ‘This is my first book. I’ve never written one before. I have so much work to do! And you’re telling me you’re going to make a movie of the book. Are you crazy?’”

As Gigliotti assembled an all-star cast, including Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner, Shetterly felt the pressure to write a book that would live up to the movie and, more importantly, properly acknowledge and do justice to these astonishing women. That, she did. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards and won Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In Hidden Figures, Shetterly weaves together the many histories of the “West Computers”—so known because they were segregated from the white women and worked on the west side of the Langley campus—focusing primarily on three key characters: Dorothy Vaughan, a Farmville math teacher who became supervisor of the section; Katherine Johnson, who authored a science paper deemed to be “the key document in the flight of Commander Alan Shepard into outer space”; and Mary Jackson, an aeronautical engineer specializing in the study of air flow over rough surfaces, such as rivets and grooves on the outermost layer of a rocket. 

The book also includes plenty of details about the history of NASA, its mission of exploration and of racial constraints that took years to overcome. Langley had to abide by Virginia laws that required segregated work facilities, restrooms and cafeterias. For a while, a cardboard sign in the cafeteria designated which area was for “Colored Computers.” The sign struck a raw nerve with some of the women, and one of them, Miriam Mann, silently protested by disposing of the sign each time a new one appeared. Eventually the signs stopped appearing.

The movie version of Hidden Figures steamrolled into theaters in January, earning three Academy Award nominations. Shetterly was invited to a White House screening: “Thirty-six hours before the event was supposed to happen,” she says, “I got this late-night email asking if I would introduce Michelle Obama.” Shetterly says she worked on her remarks late into that night. When she arrived at the White House, Shetterly placed her notes on a lectern only to find that they had been removed when she went to speak: “I kind of had to wing the speech, but everything came out fine. I would have never imagined when I started work on this book six years ago that it would lead to all of this.” 

As a consultant for the film, Shetterly was read in on its development every step of the way. (Her mother even has a cameo as one of the women who meet the astronauts when they arrive at Langley.) Early in the process, she railed against some changes the scriptwriters were making (combining multiple characters into composites and creating fictional scenes to showcase racism), but admits she didn’t understand the constraints in adapting a lengthy story into a 2-hour film. Now, she laughs at her earlier complaints and says she is thrilled with the finished product. It’s long overdue, but the “West Computers” are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

More picks for your summer reading list: 

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning
Richmond Noir, by A. Blossom and others
A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
The Mathews Men, by William Geroux
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