Dr. Jeanette Parker
Dr. Jeanette Parker (File Photo)

“Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly is a true account of personal perseverance and tenacity meaningful to all society. When I saw the movie of this book, “Hidden Figures,” I was moved with passionate excitement.  

“Hidden Figures” tells the story of Black women who work at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, starting in the early 1940s. They play an integral role in the development of American aviation and space technology and persevere in the face of discrimination against their race and gender.  

They were the first women hired to work in an all-Black unit as human “computers,” performing calculations under the direction of engineers. Over the years, as Langley desegregates, the women join engineering teams and serve alongside white men. In the 1960s, they work on the Mercury and Apollo space programs, helping to put a man into orbit and then to put men on the moon.  

The book focuses on three women. Dorothy Vaughan was hired at Langley in 1943, for the all-Black West Area Computing unit. She was a determined person and a gifted organizer. She became a shift supervisor and eventually the head of the unit.  

Eventually, the West Area unit is disbanded, like the all-white East Area unit before it. This happens partly because the women computers are increasingly being integrated into the various engineering teams, and partly because electronic computers are taking over the job of human ones.  

Mary Jackson worked under Dorothy starting in 1951. She enjoyed hands-on work and was quick to accept an offer to be part of a team that does wind tunnel research. Eventually, following her supervisor’s advice, she earns an engineering degree.  

Katherine Johnson joined the West Area unit in 1953. She was personally less bothered by the laws and social rules of the time than the other women are because she was light-skinned, which had a practical advantage in the racist society.  

But she also had the unusual ability to mentally block out the reality of racism and treat the white male engineers as equals. The engineers quickly recognize her unusual talent and ask her to join the Flight Research team. She became a trusted data analyst and researcher. Before he flies into space, John Glenn specifically asks for her to review the output of the electronic computers to confirm that the machines have done their job correctly.  

As American society makes progress toward racial equality, Mary and Katherine both try to be encouraging to Black schoolchildren who show an interest in a science career, and to Black men and women newly hired at Langley.  

One of these is Christine Mann. She became friends with Katherine’s daughter when the two of them attended Hampton Institute, an all-Black college near Langley. By 1969, the year of the moon landing, America was still far from overcoming the problem of racial prejudice and inequality. However, a younger generation of people like Christine was moving up the ranks in NASA, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson.  

Throughout the book, Shetterly shares stories from the women’s formative years that highlight racism and sexism they’ve always endured. Segregation affected the trajectory of the protagonists’ education and presented obstacles to their professional success. All three women displayed exceptional intellectual prowess from a young age, but Katherine was the only one who went on to graduate school, and she had to leave when she got pregnant.  


Shetterly uses these flashbacks to establish a pattern and demonstrate that the women have overcome obstacles since childhood and that as adults they are prepared to continue doing so. The acts of racism and racial tension at Langley and in the surrounding towns are a microcosm of the experiences of Black people throughout America. Shetterly gives readers perspective by providing historical context throughout the book.  

As the youngest of the three women, however, Katherine’s story was far from over, and the descriptions of her perseverance and of Christine Darden’s successful completion of graduate school before heading to Langley suggest that the momentum that Dorothy and her forebears created will continue long into the future.  

In the final chapter, Shetterly juxtaposes the national euphoria surrounding the moon landing with the discontent that Black people in America feel as the result of injustices and years of fighting for equal rights. The other events in the final chapter make it clear that there is still a long way to go before all Americans can enjoy equality under the law and in the public imagination, but Katherine’s full-circle moment at the very end inspires hope that these achievements are possible.  


Thanks for reading! Jeanette Grattan Parker is the founder-superintendent of Today’s Fresh Start Charter School, 4514 Crenshaw Boulevard, L.A. 90043, 323-293-9826, www.todaysfreshstart.org, (Ask Dr. Jeanette TM) “Inquiring Minds Want to Know.” All articles are copyright. All rights reserved © Errors? Or Questions? Please let me know. Join Sundays for music and message at 11:30 a.m. by calling (712) 775-8971, code 266751. References: “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly, sparknotes.com.