ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — The challenge of putting the first human into orbit of Earth wasn’t the only obstacle for employees at the NASA Langley Research Center.
Innovations in science, technology and advanced applications of math that would make most heads hurt were part of the quest, but a key group of African American women also had to work their way through hurtful segregationist policies that were slowly removed.
The women did so with little recognition, but that is changing.
More than 50 years since astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, the African American women who helped his historic flight and splash landing have been recognized in books and the movie, Hidden Figures.
The goal of helping the United States send Glenn farther than any previous man in 1962 — particularly beating the Soviet Union in the space race — advanced race relations on the Hampton, Virginia campus that had previously been Chesterville Plantation.
Students from Apple Valley and Eden Prairie High Schools were treated to a screening of Hidden Figures on Tuesday as part of the Vikings Celebrate Perseverance Black History Month series.
Miriam D. Mann, the grandmother of Macalester College Professor Duchess Harris, was one of the black female employees at NASA who was known as a “computer,” working on calculations from 1943-66 long before laptops and handheld graphing calculators.
Deployments of men during World War II led to increased job opportunities for women, including African Americans.
Mann passed a test and was hired, Harris explained to the students after the film screening.
Mann had been there 10 years when Katherine Goble Johnson, one of three real-life heroines spotlighted in the film, joined the effort.
The film illustrates Johnson’s brilliance, as well as the important roles that Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson played in history.
“I really love Mrs. Vaughan’s character because she has quiet dignity and she really finds a way to educate herself,” said Harris, who wrote Hidden Human Computers after three years of research and writing.
All students received a signed copy of the book written by Harris, who was able to share what she learned during her research process, as well as a few differences in the movie, which is not presented as a documentary but does use a “Based on true events,” designation at its open.
The process of removing a sign for “colored” restrooms is quite dramatic in the movie, but is also part of Hollywood’s practice of artistic licensing.
Harris said Mann would remove segregationist signs around the NASA campus, only to see them replaced. Eventually the signs stopped being replaced.
Unfortunately, Mann became ill in 1966 and passed away the following year, two trips around the sun before Harris was born and the United States became the first to land astronauts on the moon in 1969.
Harris learned much of the story from her mother’s oral history, and it inspired her to conduct more research. She visited all 10 NASA facilities, including the eight in former slave states, in the process.
She said researching the book and seeing the film — Tuesday was the third time she’s viewed it — has given her a connection to her grandmother that previously didn’t exist. It also, she said, passes an understanding of hurdles that were overcome.
“An important thing to take from the film is perseverance,” Harris said. “Nothing worth having is going to come easy. I think the other day I was really inspired by the NAACP Image Awards. Denzell Washington won for outstanding actor in Fences and he said, ‘Get knocked down seven, get up eight times.’ ”
During the Q&A hosted by Lea B. Olsen, Harris also said the movie can help break down remaining stereotypes and barriers.
“We still have messages to girls at certain points, particularly somewhere around adolescence, that ‘Math isn’t fun, or math isn’t for you,’ and those messages are out there,” Harris said. “When you have messages for so long, it takes a long time for us to get rid of those messages.
“People ask me why it was so difficult for them at NASA, well, the land that Langley NASA is built on was Chesterville Plantation,” Harris added. “People are not going to think of girls and women doing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overnight because we thought for hundreds of years that girls and women couldn’t and shouldn’t.”
In addition to the movie, the students also heard from Vikings Legend Gene Washington, who journeyed from the segregated South to a College Football Hall of Fame career with a fully integrated Michigan State team, and tight end
Both stressed the importance of education.
“It was very important for us to do well in our academics, so I pushed very hard,” Washington said. “Our teachers wanted to make sure we had a chance and gave us that chance. I realized early on that I could not play sports all of my life, and I’m so grateful that I had the leadership of all of my teachers and the guys who played on our teams back in the day.”
Washington then pivoted from his opportunities to the expanded opportunities in sports for women that have occurred since his playing days.
“I’ve very fortunate to have three daughters and that they all had a chance to graduate from college and earn graduate degrees,” Washington said. “The education part is so important to me. We did not have women’s sports. Now, the women, just like the men have the chance. When I see the women competing, I think about my three daughters. It’s very important that everybody has the opportunity, and I think that’s great for our society.”
Carter was named Academic All-Big Ten all four seasons at Penn State and also selected as the Quarterback Club Award winner for his accomplishments in the classroom.
“The main thing for me is I had two parents that always preached ‘school first, school first, school first,’ and I knew when I got to college I was a student-athlete, not an athlete-student,” Carter explained. “I went there with focus and to be the best person I could be, to get my degree first and foremost, and to be able to prove myself on the football field, I had to focus on school first. That means you’ve got to go to study hall instead of going out with friends.”
Carter said it was enlightening to learn from Washington’s story and the film.
“We didn’t really, as kids, go through some of the tough times that Gene had to go through,” Carter said. “These movies are showing us the battles that people had to go through in the past. We’re lucky that we’re not going through the hard times as much as a lot of people had to endure. It’s an amazing movie. You’ll learn a lot and definitely feel empowered by this movie.”