‘Hidden Figures’ author stops at Purdue, answers questions

Margot Lee Shetterly attends the special screening of "Hidden Figures" at the SVA Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Margot Lee Shetterly attends the special screening of "Hidden Figures" at the SVA Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Amber Johnson teared up after meeting Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book that sparked the hit movie, “Hidden Figures.”

Johnson, a doctoral student in computer science at Purdue University, was moved by Shetterly’s inspiring, real story of three black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA in its early years, playing a pivotal role in the Space Race and allowing astronaut John Glenn to become the first American to orbit Earth.

“A lot of times, being a computer science major and just being in the tech field, I feel like women don’t get a lot of recognition, especially women of color,” Johnson said. “And so seeing black women being talked about and exposed in that way with such a positive light, and having such an impact on history, is so near and dear to my heart.”

Shetterly held an intimate Q&A session Wednesday at Purdue’s Black Cultural Center before her public speech at Loeb Playhouse. Students and community members had the opportunity to meet Shetterly and discuss her experience writing the book and the importance of sharing untold stories in American history.

“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” delves into the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three of the women “computers” who worked in the segregated West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“A lot of the advances that happened technologically in the 20th century were made possible by that computing,” Shetterly said.

Growing up, Shetterly, whose father worked at Langley, knew many of the women who worked there. It didn’t dawn on her just how untold their stories were, however, until her husband mentioned it.

“I knew a lot of the women growing up — I remember Katherine Johnson from when I was a little girl and Mary Jackson. But really, it was my husband listening to my dad talk about the women. He said, ‘I can’t believe I don’t know about this. Somebody needs to tell this story.'”

Along with her 2016 book, Shetterly in 2014 created the Human Computer Project, which works to recover the names and accomplishments of all the women who worked as computer scientists, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s, which she estimates is in the hundreds.

Although her book focuses specifically on black women’s contributions to NASA, Shetterly said, they are not just part of African-American history, but instead an integral part of American history as a whole.

“This is an all-American story,” she said. “All of the things you learn in school — World War II and the Cold War and the Space Race — you turn it over and you see the top of it and you see the astronauts, you see all these famous people. And then you turn it upside down and there these women are. They were there, intersecting with some of the most well-known moments in American history.”

Natasha Harris, who works with underrepresented minorities in Purdue’s College of Science, emphasized the importance of telling these types of stories because they showcase the many unknown contributions of African Americans.

“I think it’s important to show the part we play within American history that is not just about slavery, is not just about segregation … that it’s also worth celebrating the struggles that we went through to the successes that we were able to accomplish.”

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Source: (Lafayette) Journal & Courier, http://on.jconline.com/2juq6wg

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Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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