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The Science of Social Change – Interview and Review of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures

By: Cassandra Harris Lockwood

ANDRO is a small scientific research company located in Rome. It has launched the “Project Fibonacci” to promote STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) in our region to local secondary schools, institutions of higher learning and government stakeholders.Project Fibonacci is coined after the renowned Middle Age mathematician Leonardo Bonacci who, during the 13th Century “discovered” a branch of mathematics that neatly describes physical properties often encountered in science, engineering, nature, art, music and the physical world.

The Fibonaccl Institue kicked off its Women and STEAM Speaker series with the gifted Margot Lee Shetterly at the Stanley on January 20th. Shetterly is the author of the groundbreaking and revealing book, Hidden Figures, the #1 New York Times Best Seller. Shetterly’s book is also the foundation of the recently number one movie in America, Hidden Figures.

The Stanley was packed full of students and their handlers and teachers, some who waited at the entrance for their young charges to enter and be seated. Young Scholars, Study Buddies, Junior Frontiers and others were all hungry to see and hear the Black woman responsible for awakening America to a glimpse of the world class power, brilliance, and ingenuity Black women brought to science and technology, and the grace in which they brought it.

Our region turned out for the chance to see and hear this remarkable woman of color. Educators of all stripes from mentors and teachers to top administrators and college presidents all packed the Stanley to learn more about Shetterley’s expose’ of a previously hidden portion of American history. As Shetterly described, An American story, regardless of our color.”As everyone there understood, Shetterly’s book and the movie tell the story of NASA’s, originally NACA’s, hiring of Black women as “human computers” in the development of the U.S. aeronautical industry.

The book begins during WWII in Hampton, Virginia. The movie, which many there had already seen, picks up the story just as the Russians had managed to succeed where America had not: getting a man into space and delivering him back to Earth safely.

The opening of the movie is a little girl, Katherine Goble (Johnson) at the blackboard. Her calculations are a stunning tribute and precursor to the genius of the NASA computer standout she grows up to be. Johnson, portrayed in the movie by Taraji P. Henson, was a member of the churchgoing, middle class Black enclave in segregated Hampton, Virginia, where Shetterly grew up.Ms. Shetterly’s father, Robert Lee, worked for NASA as an Atmospheric Research Scientist. Shetterly’s was a childhood surrounded by these many high functioning, highly skilled Black military and professional Black men and women at the dawn of the computer and space age.

This was a time as the author explained, “There was a 2% chance that a Black child would graduate high school. Black schools often had no science labs or even text books.”Shetterly however attended integrated schools years later and explained, “I grew up with them as normal. There was no “cognitive dissonance” to say Black engineer or Black mathematician, but it took all of my life to recognize their contributions.”

Margot grew up thinking that all mathematicians and engineers were Black because she was surrounded by them in her hometown. “Only now are our eyes finally sharp enough to recognize their contribution. I like to refer to them as extraordinary normal people. They were part of their communities. They taught Sunday school, gave piano lessons, led Boy Scout troops. They were perfect role models. There was talent all around us.”

It was during a visit home with her husband who began listening to the stories told by her father around the dinner table and sightseeing that made her realize that she had to write this untold story.
She spoke of a time when White America fervently practiced apartheid. There was “segregation from the schoolyard to the graveyard,” as Shetterly explained.

The movie gives a glimpse of how much time and energy was given to separating and denigrating Blacks. From the time taken for “Katherine Goble Johnson” to make it to the ‘colored bathroom’ a ¼ mile away to the empty colored coffee pot in the command center, the sting of discrimination was made apparent, as was its irrationality. Shetterly explained that there was a period of time in American history when the time was right to begin to dismantle segregation.

World War II demanded the commitment of thousands of men to go into battle which left many jobs undone.  “It became obvious that men were going off to fight just as the need for data processing was growing. The Langley computing pool was receiving more data than they could effectively process,” she explained.Rosie the Riveter and other women were called into service for jobs never before held by women. But until now, little has ever been said of the legions of Black women who also answered the call to serve their country.

It was understood that that war would be fought and won in the air and that America needed to up its quotient of mathematicians in order to do it. At that time, men did the engineering, women did computing and having a diminishing pool of men, the government turned to women who were just as competent, easy to manage, “safe efficient and cheaper to pay,” said Shetterly.
This cohort of Black professional mathematicians would be drawn from Hampton Institute, West Virginia State, Howard University and other Black colleges.
But in order for these Black women to be considered, it required an executive order by then President Roosevelt to include Blacks in the federal workforce. Roosevelt was compelled by the work and insistence of A. Phillip Randolph, Civil Rights activist and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union.

Roosevelt penned the draft of Executive Order 8802 which ended discrimination based on race. This document paved the way for unheard of stability and security for Blacks.
White folks did not want to touch, teach or treat Black people back then so the highest professional positions attainable for Blacks were doctors, dentists, preachers and teachers. The next tier were undertakers and porters, barbers and postal workers. The development of aeronautical laboratory work as Shetterly describes in her book,.. “was something so unusual it hadn’t yet entered the collective dreams.” (of the Black community)

By the time John Glenn was in flight Katherine Johnson’s calculations were so highly regarded, it was she that determined his flight path and landing coordinates. Dorothy Vaughn, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, was critical to the operations of the first IBM computers. Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae’, became the first Black female engineer.  These women were engaged in top secret projects and took every opportunity before them.

As the author explained, “They led with imagination instead of fear. Through their personal ambition they fought for a better future. A better future for themselves, their families their country and world. They are inspirational as successful Americans.”

Margot Lee Shetterly graciously ended the evening with a question and answer session which appealed to the many inquisitive young people in the audience. But not before she mentioned that it was native Utican and Oscar winner Donna Giglotti, who first informed her that her book would be made in the movie that now tops the charts.The author also added that Giglotti confided to her that not only is she from Utica but also had gotten her start in the entertainment industry at the Stanley as an “usherette!”
According to Deadline Hollywood, “I got on the phone with Margo Shetterly. She didn’t really have any exposure to Hollywood, and I think she was very suspect of this woman calling her up saying, “I’m going to get this movie made.” But she believed me, and here we are.

Hidden Figures is a movie which under normal circumstances would not have been made but for Giglotti’s vision and gravitas in the industry. A movie about three brainy Black women is not the stuff of Hollywood.

Gigliotti goes on to explain, the movie “celebrates the tenaciousness necessary to survive in a work environment dominated by white men, under a system of institutionalized racial oppression that stacked the odds against them.”

A  Stanford graduate who studied math and engineering and interned at NASA for four summers, Allison Schroeder, wrote the screenplay. Both of Schroeder’’s  parents and grandmother worked for NASA. She and Margot Shetterly worked closely on the script.Giglotti says that she wept upon reading the first 20 pages of the script, as did many others. The movie is a triumph and calls viewers to return to see it time and time again.

It should be noted that without those White individuals of conscience, strength and strategic position, such as Donna Giglotti, and Al Harrison, portrayed in the movie by Kevin Costner, and even Stephen Benson of project Fibonacci, who stand up for righteousness and  inclusion, our country would not have made the strides we have today.
History can be made everyday and the way it is made, as Margot Lee Shetterly points out is choosing “imagination and challenge over fear.”