Hidden Figures in Space Race: Black Women in STEM

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It was Malcolm X who was most famously credited with saying that “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Since the very first days of slavery and most certainly through the Civil Rights Era at the very least, this claim has been well supported. Facing not only the systematic disenfranchisement that comes with being black and American, black women must face the hurdles that come with the territory of being female, and must also take on new complications completely unique to their situation, unexperienced by black men and by non-black women. This only serves to make the work done by NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden, and Mary Jackson that much more impressive. Despite being one of the most disenfranchised groups of people in America, these black women were essential to the project that turned the tide of the Space Race. They were trailblazers—and yet were written out of the history they had helped create. Their stories are triumphs, but also provide illuminating insight on how history is written, for who it is written, and what reasons exist for why so many minority pioneers are absent from their own stories.

Relation of Civil Rights Movement and Space Age

First and foremost, it is important to note the overlap of the Civil Rights Era and the Space Age. From 1954–1968 and 1957–present day respectively, two seemingly unrelated movements created the crossroads in which Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson operated. In fact, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (which later would become the basis for the 2016 blockbuster biopic of the same name, though Darden would be left out) specifically touches on how the Civil Rights Movement changed life for millions of black Americans, detailing the changes made even as Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson continued to work. Politics, history, and the work done by NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, predecessor to the better-known NASA of today) have never not been entwined—chapter four of Shetterly’s book is titled “The Double V”, referencing a movement during the second World War that emphasised the importance of ending segregation, in itself a symbol of sorts: a book, seemingly one-dimensional in its story of scientific triumph, and yet in actuality possessing roots of surprising depth. The Civil Rights Movement had a profound impact on the lives of Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson, who started their long and (as of only recently) illustrious careers completely segregated from the white men under Jim Crow (in a brand-new building, described as “still more wilderness that anything resembling a workplace”), and ended it in the same laboratories and boardrooms as the very best of them.

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Hidden Figures: Erased Triumphs

With such homogenization of STEM and politics, common sense would suggest that Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson’s roles in space travel would’ve been huge in propelling thousands more young black women into entering STEM. Johnson, especially, played a major role in putting the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon in 1969 and was even reported to have been personally asked by astronaut John Glenn to check the calculations for his orbital mission, despite his trajectory having been mapped by a computer. Despite all this, their influences were all but nonexistent in regards to civil rights. Appropriately titled “hidden figures”, special care was taken to ensure that they would remain uncredited, their names never to see the light of day. It was written that Melvin Butler, who was in charge of recruitment, “proceeded with discretion: no big announcement in the Daily Press, no fanfare in Air Scoop… nothing to herald the arrival of the Negro women to the laboratory”. As it often proceeds when white men are in the seat of power (and they often are), history forgets its some of its greatest female contributors, and Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson’s stories are no exception to the rule.

Take, for example, Henrietta Leavitt, who was a “computer”, just like Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson. An Oberlin college graduate, she volunteered at Harvard’s space observatory, eventually discovering the cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship. Knowing this relationship was necessary for Edwin Hubble’s later discoveries and subsequent establishment of Hubble’s Law. Yet, despite the breakthrough, it took over a decade for scientists to realize the importance of her contributions—as a female, she was not allowed the status of a real researcher. By the time they realized the gravity of her discovery, she had passed away from cancer, never to see the true impact of her work.

Erasure of Black Female Scientists

Such dismissiveness to the research of female scientists isn’t confined to astronomy, either. In the year 1946, molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin accepted a job at King’s College in London. Despite being a female, she was given the full title of researcher, unlike Leavitt. However, her colleagues refused to regard her with the respect of their other, male peers, treating her instead as a technical assistant. A growing animosity between her and her research partner, Maurice Wilkins, led to his showing of her unreleased x-ray photos of DNA to two male colleagues of his, James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick created the now-famous helical DNA model, having observed it from her photos, which eventually won them a Nobel Prize. Franklin was left uncredited until years after she died from ovarian cancer—believed by some to be due to her extensive work with x-rays. After her passing, Crick admitted that her contribution had been essential. Similarly, black chemist Alice Ball was the College of Hawaii’s very first African American female chemistry instructor. Despite others’ views of her, she spent years researching, isolating, and developing a viable cure for Hansen’s disease—also known as leprosy. Unfortunately, Ball passed away at the age of 24 in 1916. Seeing an opening, college president Arthur Dean used her research to complete the treatment, even going as far as to credit himself entirely for the discovery, calling the treatment “Dean’s Method”. It took until six years after her death for Dr. Harry T. Hollmann to publish a paper crediting her for her work, though her contributions still remained largely unnoticed; it wasn’t until 2007, nearly a century later, that the now University of Hawaii belatedly awarded her with the Regent’s Medal of Distinction.


Thus, though Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson exemplified black excellence in a key time for their culture, they had almost no impact on how people viewed black women in STEM. Such is so often the case, when it is men who hire you, men who pay you, men who publicize or do not publicize you, et cetera. Men, especially white men, have controlled what graces the covers of newspapers and the pages of textbooks since colonial times—of course Johnson, Vaughan, Darden, and Jackson couldn’t change history, given that they were removed from their own. Katherine Johnson sent astronauts to the moon. Vaughan was the very first black American manager at NACA. Darden would be the first black female at Langley to be given a position in the Senior Executive Service. Jackson would be NASA’s first black female engineer, all of these back in the Civil Rights Era. They wouldn’t get their recognition until the 21st century. Only one, Katherine Johnson, even lived to see the credit she was due, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by then-President Obama. The rest would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019. Yet, even with their accolades, things aren’t exactly “fixed”. In the prologue to Hidden Figures, Shetterly admits that, “Even as I write the final words of this book, I’m still doing the numbers. I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory… My intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research.” At least seventy or so black women still remain uncredited at Langley alone, in astronomy alone, researched by Shetterly alone; how many thousands more must there be she simply hasn’t discovered—how many more are at other locations, in other concentrations, in other sciences, never to have history made right? 

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