During Black History Month in February, many Americans learn new details about the well-known achievements of leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth. But last year, Margot Lee Shetterly's bestselling book, "Hidden Figures," brought to light a little-known but significant piece of African-American history.
Shetterly's book tells the true story of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan — three of dozens of African-American women who worked for NASA in math, science and computing in the 1950s and '60s. The author is the daughter of one of the early black male scientists at the NASA installation near Hampton, Va.
A well-received film based on Shetterly's book has been nominated for an Academy Award for best picture I spoke with Shetterly by phone in advance of her Tuesday talk at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. (For last-minute rush ticket information, go to http://www.northrop.umn.edu/events/margot-lee-shetterly.) Below are excerpts of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: The movie based on your book has done very well at the box office and has already earned numerous awards — including the Screen Actors Guild Best Picture. Was the film true to the story you told and were you happy with the outcome?
A: I'm an executive producer and consultant on the movie. This is my first book and movie, so I had to understand what it meant to adapt a book for film; you can't tell the story in exactly the same way. Some timelines were changed, relationships altered and composite characters were created. But the spirit of the women, the look at black middle-class life and importance of the women's contributions were just right.
There was a commitment to authenticity — the woman producer who optioned my book made sure there were women, including African-American women, behind the cameras as well and that there was pay equity for women working on the movie.
Q: You wrote about black female mathematicians who helped put Americans on the moon from a NASA base in the segregated South. Why was that an unknown piece of history?
A: I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, in the neighborhoods where these women lived, raised families, went to church and worked at NASA's Langley Research Center like my father did. It was all very normal to us — I took it for granted that that's what scientists looked like — regular people who loved their work.
Back then I knew many of them worked at NASA, but I didn't know exactly what they did. It was only about six years ago that I understood the magnitude of the work black women were doing there. It was nice to grow up in a place where that achieved such a degree of normalcy that people weren't talking about it all the time. [That's when the author started researching archives and interviewing former and current NASA employees and family members.]
A lot of times we talk about black people as if being black is all they are. They get up, go to work … and are as complex and interesting and variable as any other group of people. We don't often capture that or write about it. There is so much more to black history, black life than slavery, civil rights and Obama — much more than the firsts and onlys.
Q: You knew some of the families that you wrote about. What was it like to research the careers of adults from your childhood neighborhood?
A: I went to school with Katherine's daughter; my mother was in the same AKA sorority with one of them. It was a feeling of discovery and exhilaration — three women were featured in the film but there were so many more. Many were the first and only [black females] in their departments.
As I did more research I found women like Dorothy Hoover [in the book but not the movie] who was doing extraordinary, high-level work and getting credit on reports. That gave me a tremendous sense of confidence … knowing that it happened right there where I grew up — much less for a black woman in a Jim Crow state.
Q: Some of the white male characters in the film were strict segregationists, but others appeared to just care about the job no matter what the gender or race of who could do it. Did that come through in your research?
A: I'm very close to a number of people who worked at NASA; so many of them say "I knew that guy" [the Kevin Costner composite character], the semi-distracted, disheveled scientist who thought "this segregation thing is ruining my mission." They weren't idealists out marching for civil rights. They were pragmatists focused on their work.
Also, there were professionals at NASA then — engineers and others from the north, west and other countries who came with progressive ideas. They believed that if someone was talented they should be given a chance. They were civil rights allies who helped step over barriers of racism and sexism.
Q: How do the numbers of African-Americans in the scientific, engineering field today compare with the period in the '50s and '60s covered in your book?
A: I don't have exact figures, but my best estimate is that there were 80 to 100 black women working for NASA in engineering, computing and mathematics from the mid 1940s to the 1970s. They were part of a cohort of up to a thousand women total. Anecdotally, I'm told that the numbers aren't that high today.
White and black women were in those fields then and there is no reason it can't happen again at those levels. There is so much talent among our young people; I hope the women in "Hidden Figures" inspire them.
Q: What's next for you?
A: At this point, I'll get to write another book for sure — I have a couple of stories that I'm already working on. I want to keep telling stories of ordinary people. There was a time when few would have thought a story about a bunch of mathematicians could be successful. They would have said — you're crazy, that's boring.
The success of "Hidden Figures" proves that people are interested in, hungry for, stories about transcendent human experiences. I'm hopeful about the public appetite for stories like "Hidden Figures" — and "Lion" and "Fences" [two other films nominated for best picture] — that are optimistic and show humanity across races and cultures.
Denise Johnson is an editorial writer.