Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition byMargot Lee Shetterly is the "untold, true story of four African-American women who helped launch our nation into space." While I am very unlikely to read a non-fiction (even a young readers' edition) book about science and/or the space race and almost equally unlikely read a biography about mathematician, I found Hidden Figures: Young Readers' Edition highly readable and hard to put down.
What kept me reading were the continual challenges faced by Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden during their time working at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, VA at what was NACA and became NASA. Shetterly provides excellent back matter in her book, starting with a timeline of important historical events, and including a glossary, index, source notes and further reading section, as well as an index. The loss of manpower on the home front during WWII spurred President Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry, opening the doors of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to African-Americans. The four subjects of Hidden Figures joined the segregated computing pool, the first female computing pool having been established in 1935.
In 1943, Dorothy Vaughn left her job as a teacher (schools were still segregated at this time) to become a "human computer," doubling her salary. She spent the next 28 years at Langley and saw the end of segregated computing pools, as well as the end of computing pools. Vaughn took computer programming classes and secured a professional job as well as the respect of her coworkers. Shetterly does a masterful job balancing the scientific advances of the time with the burgeoning civil rights movement, noting moments of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination the African-American women faced at work and outside of work, where segregated housing, transportation, schools and shops were the norm. From segregated restrooms (or the lack thereof, forcing the women to walk the distance of the Langley campus when working special jobs) to segregated lunch tables, graduate programs and more. Vaughn and the rest of the African-American women at NACA presented themselves with a professional demeanor and dress, like they were on their "way to a meeting with the president," knowing that they had to prove themselves, both as women and African-Americans.
In 1939, Katherine Johnson became one of three African-Americans and the only female chosen to desegregate the graduate program at West Virginia University. She went on to calculate the trajectory for the 1961 space flight of Alan Shepherd, the first American man in space. When John Glenn was preparing to orbit earth, he asked for Johnson by name to verify the calculations. Mary Jackson worked at NASA for 34 years, and, encouraged by a supervisor, she took classes to become and engineer. She had to petition to take night classes offered by the University of Virginia at the all-white high school in Hampton. She was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958 and went on to earn the most senior engineering title possible. Christine Darden, the youngest of the four, was part of the second generation of African-American women working at NASA as "human computers," working first as a data analyst and moving on to the position of aerospace engineer, her early research resulting in a revolution of aerodynamics design.
One of my favorite stories in the book is of Mary Jackson working with her son to build a racer to compete Virginia Peninsula's 1960 soap box derby. Levi Jackson became the first African-American boy in history to win the Hampton Roads area's soap box derby, going on to Akron, Ohio to compete in the All-American Soap Box Derby. The four women of Hidden Figures made huge advances for women and African-Americans in the world of science and they also worked tirelessly outside of work, promoting, leading, inspiring, fighting for recognition and supporting each other's work.
Source: Review Copy