(Photo courtesy of Shervonne Cherry)
The movie Hidden Figures picks up in the ’60s, but the story of the Black women who worked as computers at NASA starts much earlier.
At an event held last week at Spark Baltimore, Duchess Harris talked about her research into the history of the trailblazing NASA engineers. Harris, a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., is the author of Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA. The book is geared toward 6th-12th-graders, and Harris also developed a curriculum.
She explained the connection to the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities around the time of the Civil War. Her grandmother, Miriam Mann, graduated Talladega College in Alabama with a chemistry degree. Additionally, Mann got a job working for the space program at Langley Air Force Base because Harris’s grandfather was teaching at Hampton University in Virginia at the time.
Another key event came in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to pressure from African Americans to issue an executive order that banned discriminatory hiring practices in the federal government. It was at the height of World War II, and the flight-focused agency was known as NACA. Mann and 10 other Black computers started at NACA in 1943, Harris said.
“Not only did they start earlier, but the Black women got there and never left, which was different than the pattern of the white women,” many of whom began staying at home to raise children, she said.
Segregation still persisted, however, as the Black “women computers” were in the West Area. A cafeteria for African Americans didn’t open until the next decade. Mann took a “Colored” sign from the bathroom and slid it into her purse. So, as it turns out, Kevin Costner’s character wasn’t the one who took the sign down.
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Along with her grandmother and the other original computers, Harris also told the story of Annie Easley. A computer at a facility in Cleveland who started in the 1950s, Easley became adept in computer programming as she recognized that machines had the potential to do the work that the human computers were performing. Easley also worked on voter registration, and went on to become an equal employment opportunity officer at NASA.
While race is a key factor in the story, Harris pointed out that class also played a role. The women who became computers had college degrees and represented a pretty small group, she said.
“This is really rarified air. It’s never going to be more than a few hundred,” she said.
In the 1970s, NASA made efforts to recruit more female African American employees, hiring Nichelle Nichols (of Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek fame) to promote the effort. It was widely seen as a success.