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The Movie Was Great, But Here Are the Real Women of “Hidden Figures”

real-women-of-hidden-figures

Hidden Figures, is a bestselling biography entitled “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” written by Margot Lee Shetterly. And it was recently turned into a Hollywood movie revealing the untold  true story of three brilliant African-American women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), working at NASA as the brains behind one of the greatest acts in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and ensuring his safe return, a remarkable achievement that restored the nation’s confidence and turned around the Space Race. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream bigger than the circumstances.

We stand on the shoulders of three American heroes, without them we would not be able to reach the stars.”  ~Taraji Henson

In high school we learned about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but I never heard anything about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson.   But I will make sure my daughter and generations to come know these phenomenal women and their extraordinary contributions!

In high school we learned about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but I never heard anything about Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson

In the early 1960’s, these three female African-American women pioneers broke barriers and shattered glass ceilings in NASA’s space program in the Jim Crow South.

NASA had a team made up of mostly women who calculated complex equations by hand which allowed the safe space travel of Astronauts like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Alan Shepard. These highly intelligent, strong-willed, uncompromising and unsettling women made a mark on American History. Thanks to their calculations, John Glenn was the first American astronaut to completely orbit the earth. In an era where NASA is led by African-Americans with Charles Bolden as the Administrator and Dava Newman as deputy, it is very easy to forget the pioneers who paved the way. Let us give tribute to these phenomenal women!

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) born in Kansas City, Missouri to Annie and Leonard Johnson was NASA’s first African-American manager. She graduated from Beechurst High School in Morgan town, West Virginia on a full tuition scholarship. Vaughan obtained a degree in Mathematics from Wilberforce University, Ohio in 1929 at the age of 19. Dorothy Johnson got married to Howard S. Vaughan Jr in 1932 and they had four children together. She was a Math teacher at Robert Russa Morton High School in Farmville, VA until she was employed by NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in 1943 for what she thought would be a temporary war job until President Roosevelt’s Executive Order.

Vaughan was the head of the segregated “West Area Computing” Unit from 1949 until 1958; she was a highly respected Mathematician. Built in 1917, this research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) as the space race gained speed.
When NACA transitioned into NASA, segregated facilities were destroyed (including the West computing office). She retired in 1971. In an interview in 1994, Vaughan said “I changed what I could and what I couldn’t, I endured”. Vaughan worked at NASA-Langley for a total of twenty-eight years. She raised her children during her career at Langley and one of them worked at NASA-Langley later on.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (August 26, 1918) was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to Joshua and Joylette Coleman was a child prodigy long before her journey in NASA. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a lumberman, handyman and farmer who worked at the Greenbrier Hotel. Coleman showed her talent for math at an early age and she was among the first three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate school in 1939 being the first and only female African-American to desegregate the graduate school. Angie Turner King and W.W Schiefflin Claytor were her mentors through high school. She graduated summa cum laude with the highest honors in Mathematics and French in 1937 at the age of 18. She taught at a black public school in Virginia after graduation for one year.

After she left her teaching job, she enrolled for a graduate math program but she left after a session to start a family with her husband, James Francis Goble in 1939. Together, they had three beautiful daughters; Constance, Joylette and Katherine. Her husband died of a brain tumor in 1956 shortly after they relocated to pursue her new job opportunity in NACA. Katherine remarried to Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson in 1959 continuing her career at NASA.

Katherine sang in the Carver Presbyterian Church choir for 50 years. She pursued a career as a research mathematician but was unable to secure employment other than teaching because she was an African-American woman. At a family gathering in 1952, a relative informed Vaughan that NACA was hiring mathematicians. In the summer of 1953, she began working at NACA’s Langley laboratory under Dorothy Vaughan. She worked on trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s first human space flight in 1961. She co-authored a research report and was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as a research report author.

One of her greatest achievements was in 1962 when she was specially requested to work on John Glenn’s orbital mission which was a huge success for the United States against the Soviet Union. She retired in 1986. Vaughan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2015. Katherine has been a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha since college (a sorority founded for and by African-American women). She lives in Hampton, Virginia with her husband and they have six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. To this day she has continued to encourage our youth to pursue careers in science and technology.

Mary Winston Jackson

Mary Winston Jackson (April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005) was committed to improving the lives of people around her and had a profound love for science. She was born in Hampton, Virginia to Ella Scott and Frank Winston. Jackson graduated with the highest honors from high school and obtained a dual degree and Math and Physical Sciences from the Hampton Institute in 1942. She was married with two children. Jackson taught at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland. She began her career in NASA in 1951 reporting to Dorothy Vaughan and by 1958 she was NASA’s first black female engineer.

After the transition to NASA, she became frustrated by the racial and gender setbacks and decided to fill the position for Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager where she worked hard to impact the lives of upcoming female NASA Scientists, Engineers and Mathematicians. Jackson helped black children in her community create a miniature wind tunnel for testing airplanes in the 1970’s. She was also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha.  She retired in 1985 and achieved many honors such as the Apollo Group Achievement Award. Mary Jackson served as a Girl Scout leader for over thirty years.

In conclusion, one of the movies most powerful messages (it had so many though) is that racism and sexism nearly deprived NASA of the contributions of Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician whose work enabled John Glenn’s orbits around the Earth in 1962. The fate of our state is inextricably tied to the American promise of opportunity for all citizens. When only white or wealthy Americans are given access to top-notch education and employment, it’s not just non-affluent and black and brown people who suffer: Our entire nation misses out on incalculable untapped potential.

There are simply no words to emphasize the magnitude of my recommendation highly encouraging EVERYONE to watch the movie Hidden Figures.  It should be required viewing in every history class from elementary to college around the globe AND required reading considering so many “golden nuggets” are left on the editing cutting floor and can only be found in the book.  I honor Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson’s courageous lives and their now told stories, and I am deeply honored that their lives and accomplishments were shared with us…so that we may continue carrying that torch and igniting that fire even brighter.

These three PHENOMENAL women are truly EXTRAORDINARY and have encouraged many black women myself included to chase and secure their dreams while breaking every barrier standing in the way to never be HIDDEN!

About the author

Da-Nay Macklin wrote 36 articles on this blog.

Coach Da-Nay Macklin is a Certified Christian Life & Relationship Coach, founder of the Courageous Conquerors Mastermind and Author of Love After Adultery: The Breakthrough Journey of the Brokenhearted Available on Amazon She is one of the nation’s leading experts on infidelity and a thought leader on maximizing potential as she assists couples and individuals to live life by design and not default. Da-Nay has been has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s show Unfaithful: Stories of Betrayal after successfully navigating adultery in her marriage, and named one of the 15 most powerful women on the south side of Chicago. She now resides in Charlotte, NC with her loving husband and daughter.


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