“Hidden Figures”: The True Story of the Black Women at NASA Daring “Fearlessly to Pursue Their Dreams”

Mekeisha Madden Toby talks to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of "Hidden Figures."

“Hidden Figures”: The True Story of the Black Women at NASA Daring “Fearlessly to Pursue Their Dreams”

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY’S Hidden Figures is the story and celebration of the four dozen unsung black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers from 1943 to 1980 for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). More precisely, it is a historical homage to the fearlessness of mathematical minds too brilliant to be hindered by racism and sexism — to women who walked away from traditional, low-paying teaching jobs and marched into a predominantly white, segregated work force that considered them, in Shetterly’s words, “invisible and invaluable at the same time.”

There was Dorothy Vaughan, who blazed more than a few paths as one of the first black women to work as a “human computer” at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. When the married mother of four wasn’t securing promotions for her fellow black and white female co-workers, she was orchestrating ingenious childcare arrangements for her progeny and fiscally pushing her family into the middle class. She was 98 when she died in 2008. As Shetterly writes, “Education topped her list of ideals; it was the surest hedge against a world that would require more of her children than white children, and attempt to give them less in return.”

 Mary Jackson at NASA

Mary Jackson

Then there was Mary Jackson, a “shrewd and intuitive judge of character, an emotionally intelligent woman who paid close attention to her surroundings and the people around her.” It was this shrewdness that cleared the way for Jackson’s ascent from human computer to aerospace engineer. A wife and mother of two, Jackson also volunteered as a Girl Scout leader for 30 years and designed a sleek soap-box derby car for her son that helped him win first place. Jackson died in 2005 at the age of 83.

katherine_johnson_at her desk at Langley with a celestrial training device

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson has become the most widely recognized among NASA’s black women pioneers. Before John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962, he asked that Johnson do the math to ensure his safety. Seven years later, the twice-married mother of three went on to work with Glenn again to calculate the trajectories for his Apollo 11 moon mission. Of the 98-year-old maverick, Shetterly writes, “Her unencumbered embrace of equality, applying it to herself without insecurity and to others with full expectation of reciprocity, is a reflection of the America we want to be. She has been standing in the future for years, waiting for the rest of us to catch up.”

These women’s remarkable, uplifting stories from Shetterly’s Hidden Figures have inspired director Theodore Melfi’s film of the same name, starring Taraji P. Henson (as Johnson), Octavia Spencer (as Vaughan), and Janelle Monáe (as Jackson). The film has been wildly applauded by moviegoers and critics alike, and is among the 2017 Humanitas Prize finalists.

Melfi’s much buzzed-about adaptation, on which Shetterly served as an executive producer, has inspired fans to seek out the book — which spans from World War II through the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the Space Race — and to delve deeper into these women’s stories. But readers must be forewarned: Shetterly references a lot of technical aeronautical terms and procedures. The jargon is there to better illustrate the work these women actually did, but some may find it pace-stalling.

Shetterly is a former investment banker who grew up in Hampton, Virginia — the town Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson put on the map. I spoke to Shetterly while she was on tour promoting her book and the film.


MEKEISHA MADDEN TOBY: Hidden Figures is such a labor of love, particularly with the abundance of historical facts and anecdotes. How difficult was it to track down information, especially on people who have passed away?

MARGOT LEE SHETTERLY: It was like one step leading to the next. Thankfully, Ms. Johnson is still around, so I was able to spend a lot of time with her and her family. A lot of the clues to the other women started with her. I spent a lot of time with the families of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and I was able to get a lot of personal information on them. Once I started digging, I got more documentary evidence from black newspapers, especially the Norfolk Journal and Guide. As the black newspaper for southeastern Virginia, it was a huge source for me. That newspaper documented a lot of the lives and everyday aspects of these women and the community.

In that way, would you say Hidden Figures is an homage to black newspapers, particularly in modern times, when the editorial contributions of such publications are often taken for granted?

The black newspaper, particularly the Norfolk Journal and Guide, is really another character in the book. If it weren’t for the Norfolk Journal and Guide, this book wouldn’t have been possible. They reported on this story from the beginning, when the first 11 women graduated from the core training class, which is the picture on the book jacket. I’m deeply indebted to that newspaper.

A. Philip Randolph, the labor and Civil Rights activist, is also credited with inspiring Executive Order 8802, the federal action that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Were you familiar with Randolph before the book?

I was familiar with him as an early Civil Rights figure, but all of the details on what he had done I didn’t really know — particularly his specific relationship to this story. For me, the hidden figures aren’t just these women who worked with the astronauts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the face of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights movement, but most of us don’t realize that everyday heroes like A. Philip Randolph did the work long before him. If it weren’t for Randolph, King wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stand there in front of all those people on that day in 1963. He’s another hidden figure in the book, or more of a forgotten figure. He was somebody we all knew, who has now faded from history.

The historical details in some parts of the book were heartbreaking. For instance, the German prisoners of war receiving better treatment than black Americans. What did it mean to you, recounting these uglier parts of history?

I wanted to put it all out there, because it’s hard for some people to understand the context for these women and what they did. German prisoners of war were enemies of the state but were allowed to go in restaurants — yet here were women who were 100-percent behind the United States’s patriotic war efforts, and who were not able to do that. Most of us can’t imagine the humiliation they sustained and the complication of what it means to be black in the United States.

And then there was Miriam Mann, who led her own small revolution by removing the “Colored Girls” signs from tables in NASA’s segregated lunch room — you could almost write a sequel solely about her. How difficult was it to choose the book’s leading ladies, with so many amazing women involved in the story?

That’s the thing, right? We see the big actions and the persistence in protests and marches in the streets. But one of the ways I wanted to address prejudice and these women’s resistance to it was to capture those small actions on an everyday basis. Those are the things that really add up. That was one of the great moments in the book.

Dorothy Vaughan was a feminist before it was even a term, and her ability to work and secure childcare and take care of her family is incredibly inspiring.

I would say that all of these women were feminists, but she really was a no-nonsense believer in fearlessly pursuing her dreams. Her family told me about how fearless she was, first and foremost. And she was an advocate. She felt it was her responsibility to advocate for all of the women. It was really important for me to show the intersection of these women and their experiences. I wanted to be as detailed as possible about the work that they did to show the intersection of their personal lives and the difficulty of the sacrifices they made.

They were doing things that we now can say are very feminist. They were asserting themselves as women and acting as the protagonists of their own lives. These women really understood that they were helping their families — ahead of their personal ambitions — and focused on the obligations they had to their children and the community. They understood that their successes as black women would lead to opportunities for other people who looked like them.

Mathematician Dorothy Vaughan paved the way for Katherine Johnson, the most recognized among the black women who worked for NASA, right?

Right. Of all the women in the book — and there are so many amazing women — I am most emotionally attached to Dorothy Vaughan. She was ambitious but didn’t see all of her ambitions realized. She really helped fuel the careers of Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, both of whom got a lot of credit. Until now, Dorothy Vaughan hasn’t gotten a lot of credit. So I was determined to create this platform to tell her story.

You characterize her in the book as something of the A. Philip Randolph of the group. Vaughan died before these stories became known. Meanwhile, Katherine Johnson was able to work on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015.

People have seen Katherine Johnson honored. She’s a rock star, in a sense. She is like the Beyoncé of the group. That’s why in chapters 21 and 22, I really juxtaposed the torch being passed behind the scenes between A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr., with Katherine Johnson getting her big moment from the torch Dorothy Vaughan passed to her behind the scenes.

Coincidentally, this same thing feels like it’s playing out with the film: Taraji P. Henson’s name is first on the marquee. She’s playing Katherine Johnson. Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, while an Oscar winner, is still not as highly regarded in Hollywood as Henson. I know that has nothing to do with the book, but it’s an interesting correlation between art and life.

Exactly. Dorothy Vaughan had already been working at NASA 10 years before Katherine Johnson got hired, so I see the similarities.

Your father, Robert Benjamin Lee III, worked in NASA’s Atmospheric Sciences Division, and, at one point, Mary Jackson worked for him. How has he responded to the book?

It’s thrilling for him and for my mother — and everybody in Hampton. We’re so proud of these women and this history, because it belongs to us.


Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles–based journalist. The Detroit native has covered television and the entertainment industry for 18 years for outlets such as Essence, MSN TV, The Detroit News, espnW, TV Guide, CNN.com, Playboy.com and People Magazine.

LARB Contributor

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles–based journalist who fell in love with books and words as a small child. The Detroit native, wife, and mother has covered television and the entertainment industry for 18 years for outlets such as Essence, MSN TV, the Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, espnW, TV Guide, CNN.com, Playboy.com, and People Magazine. Check out her podcast, which she records at NPR West, at TVMadnessMMT.podbean.com.


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