The History Behind 'Hidden Figures'

Author Duchess Harris talks about the economic and social factors that led African-American women to work as "computers" for NASA.
Katherine Johnson

Mathematician Katherine Johnson at work at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. 

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Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- The Oscar-nominated movie "Hidden Figures" brought significant attention to the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan -- three African-American women who worked for NASA during the space race. Their individual success stories were shaped in part by the shifting economic, social and political landscape in the U.S. during the early days of the Cold War. 

Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, explores these underlying factors in her recent book Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA. Harris, who's a legal scholar specializing in the history of African-American political movements, also has family ties to this specific piece of NASA history. Her grandmother, Miriam Mann, was one of the first 11 African-American women hired as human computers in 1943 by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the predecessor to NASA.

Inside Science's Yuen Yiu talked with Harris about the history of African-American women in NASA, as well as the continuing underrepresentation of certain minorities in science and engineering fields.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

YUEN YIU: In your book, you talked about many economic and social factors, besides the political ones, that led to the inclusion of African-American women in NASA. Can you tell us a little bit about that?



Duchess Harris

Duchess Harris, the author of Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.

DUCHESS HARRIS: One of the things that my research indicates is that black women were consistently at NASA once they arrived there, and that's a different history than what the white woman had. When we had the economic boom after World War II, and we had the creation of the interstate, and suburbia, white women were able to return home, and take care of their children. That was mostly because the white men who'd fought in the war were able to benefit from the G.I. bill, and purchase homes and have good jobs. The black men were not treated the same, and that meant the black women needed the income and stayed at NASA. The good thing that came about that, however, is that it provided an opportunity for the black women who stayed to become supervisors and become engineers.

YIU: You also mention that many NASA locations are near historically black colleges. How significant was this?

HARRIS: It was a huge factor. It just so happened that the majority of the NASA sites were in former slave states. And what that meant is that when we went to war, and they were looking for assistants, they came up with the idea of going to the historically black colleges. So the NASA in Houston, Texas, the one in Huntsville, Alabama, the one in Cape Canaveral, Florida -- all of them are near historically black colleges. This ended up helping to bring economic stability to those black communities, and provide work opportunities that had not existed.

YIU: Why do you think NASA chose those sites? Was it because the land was cheaper?

HARRIS: That I'm not really sure about, it might have possibly been coincidence. One thing I do know about is that NASA Langley was built on the land that used to be Chesterville plantation, but I don't know if that made it any less expensive.

YIU: There was a significant pay gap between the African-American employees and the white employees. If NASA was hiring African-Americans because they ran out of people to hire, how could they justify paying them such low wages?

HARRIS: Well, there was absolutely no mechanism to dispute those wages. I mean, it's not like it was a union job. NACA desegregated in 1943, and the federal government had only been desegregated two years before in 1941, when Roosevelt signed [Executive Order 8802]. So it's not like you were going to petition the government -- who are you going to complain to?

YIU: Even today, specifically in the physical sciences, both African-Americans and women are still vastly underrepresented. What do you think needs to happen? Or what can the public or the government do to change this? And perhaps more importantly, why should people who aren't from those groups care?

HARRIS: People should care for the same reason that mattered in the '40s -- if you have the best, you'd do the best. So we have to think that every community has its best, and that's what we want in America, but we sometimes assume certain communities don't have the best. In order to get the best of the best, everyone needs to invest in the system. The way to get there is from K-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade education]. A lot of people say, you know we can tap into the talent at graduate schools, but that's much too late. There are communities that still aren't getting into colleges, let alone graduate schools, so the emphasis really has to be in K-12. It is a tremendous impact for all students to think of a diversified workforce, and you can get that from curriculum, by seeing representations of different people and different professions, it broadens our idea of who could be in those professions.

YIU: So, it's an ongoing progress that you are suggesting, that we need role models from the last generation, so we can have more people from this generation who can act as the role models for the next generation, and so on?

HARRIS: Exactly. I remember knowing that other girls were discouraged to go into math. Like for instance, there used to be a Barbie doll that says, "Math is hard." Then there was a public response, and they discontinued that doll. Compare to today, that Legos just announced a new line of Legos that will include the black women who worked at NASA. It's amazing how far we've come.


More information concerning Harris' project on documenting the history of human computers at NASA can be found at the official website here.

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Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.