Monday, October 10, 2016

Hidden Figures/ Margot Lee Shetterly/ 346 pages

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shettetly documents the lives of several black computers at NACA and later NASA Langley.   Located in segregated Virginia,  a job at Langley was one of few options open to well educated black women in the 1940's and beyond.   It was hard for any woman to break into the world of engineering, but even harder for a black woman.  Shetterly does a good job of exposing the difficulties for blacks in the south seeking either an education or a well paying job.  Forced to attended segregated colleges, the women often received excellent instruction, an off shoot of segregation.  Black men could attend northern colleges such as Harvard, but would never be able to teach there.  As a result the segregated colleges in the south had an excellent faculty and attracted the best and brightest students.  From this background the women moved mostly into teaching positions.  Finally during the Second World War and the Space Race they were able to move into math and engineering positions.

Langley, located in Virginia was not free of the blatant segregation of that state.  The black women computers were housed in the 'West Campus' away from the white computers.  They dealt with black only tables in the cafeteria and segregated bathrooms.  They moved their families into segregated housing and attended segregated churches.  But most found acceptance and admiration for their work at Langley.

The author does bring up one very interesting point.  As the computers moved up to mathematician and engineering positions with pay raises, they moved on to better housing.  An unforeseen result was that the families left in the lower cost housing no longer had the same role models to look up to and living conditions in those areas deteriorated.

Over all the author does a good job of presenting the life of a black computer.  She glosses over the technical accomplishments of NACA and NASA giving the date of Yuri Gagarin's  space flight, while skipping the date for Alan Shepard's and John Glenn's historic flights.  It's a good read for one to understand what is happening in our cities today.

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