In the early years of space exploration, a group of African-American women mathematicians, working behind the scenes for what is now NASA, helped the nation reach some of its greatest aeronautical achievements.
Referred to then as “human computers,” the women operated in relative obscurity. But their story is finally being told in a New York Times bestseller and a major motion film scheduled for a late-December release.
And Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (HarperCollins, 2016), will bring their story to Case Western Reserve University as keynote speaker for the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation.
The event, which is free and open to the public, is Friday, Feb. 3, at 12:30 p.m. in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Ballroom at the Tinkham Veale University Center. A book-signing and reception follows her talk. To attend, register at case.edu/events/mlk/.
Each year, Case Western Reserve celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy with a range of activities, including workshops, films, panel discussions and acclaimed speakers.
In her keynote, Shetterly will touch on issues of race, gender, science, innovation and more—detailing the often-unheralded contributions of women and minorities to American innovation.
“The fact that the word ‘hidden’ is there is part of the issue; these are unsung heroes,” said Marilyn Sanders Mobley, vice president of the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. “I love the way it expands the national narrative, to say, no, there was a lot of collaboration across racial lines, that there were other people contributing in a major way to such an important national endeavor—and in a STEM field.”
Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is an epic history about four African-American women—Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden—who, from World War II through the Cold War, were vital in devising aeronautic calculations that propelled the United States as a leader in space exploration.
Teaching math at segregated schools in the South, the women were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had jobs worthy of their skills at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia, where Shetterly was raised.
Shetterly, whose father was among the early generation of black NASA engineers and scientists, had direct access to NASA executives and the women featured in the book. She grew up near the historically black Hampton College, where the women in Hidden Figures studied, and had access to Langley Memorial/NASA employee newsletters dating back to 1942 to use as a resource for the book.
Even as Jim Crow laws segregated them from their white counterparts, the women of this all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. They were part of a group of hundreds of black and white women who, over the decades, contributed to some of NASA’s greatest successes.
Shetterly, also founder of the Human Computer Project, a digital archive of the women’s stories, graduated from the University of Virginia and is a 2014 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow.
A film based on Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst and Kevin Costner, is scheduled for a late-December release.
Case Western Reserve’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration includes a “reflection competition” of essays, poetry, short stories, art, photography and video about his life, work and influence. The contest is open to staff, students and faculty/administrators from Case Western Reserve and Cuyahoga Community College.