Largely ignored in history books, Christine Darden and Katherine Johnson are finally getting their turn in the national spotlight thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly’s first book, Hidden Figures, out today (Sept. 6) by William Morrow, and its upcoming film adaptation starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, due for a year-end release and set for an Oscars run.
Johnson, played by Henson, is now 73 and retired after working her way out of NASA’s computing pool to lead engineering research into sonic booms.
Darden, who recently turned 98, calculated rocket trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, and last year President Barack Obama personally awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her life’s work. Johnson is not portrayed in “Hidden Figures,” as the film focuses on the years preceding her arrival at NASA.
The two women speak to Tampa Bay Times about the film and their role in history. View excerpts below, and the entire article here:
Black and female, dozens had worked at the space agency as mathematicians, often under Jim Crow laws, calculating crucial trajectories for rockets while being segregated from their white counterparts. For decades, as the space race made heroes out of lantern-jawed astronauts, the stories of those women went largely untold.
Darden and Katherine Johnson still socialize, and on a recent summer day, made meltingly hot by a heat wave, met to play bridge at Johnson’s apartment. (Johnson and her partner won.) Shetterly was visiting too, and presented both women with an early copy of her book.
“Fantastic,” Darden said, as Johnson, whose eyesight is failing, peered at the cover with a slight smile.
Yet asked how she felt about the coming film, in which she is played by Henson, in the starring role, Johnson became solemn.
“I shudder,” Johnson said. She had heard, she said, that the movie might stretch the facts, and that her character possibly came across as aggressive. “I was never aggressive,” Johnson said.
Shetterly reminded Johnson of her persistence in the late 1950s, when she successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings. “You took matters in your own hands,” Shetterly said. “For other women, it was a revelation.”
Johnson said: “Well, I don’t ever wait for something. I remember asking the question, ‘Is there a law?’ And he said, ‘Let her go.’ It was easier than arguing.”
Listening in, one of Johnson’s health aides chuckled. “Yep,” he said, “That’s the Katherine Johnson I know.”
Though outwardly their stories are remarkable, both Darden and Johnson remained matter-of-fact when describing their careers, an attitude that seems to have prevailed among their peers.
Ann Hammond, whose mother, Dorothy Vaughan, was one of the first black women to be hired by what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, in 1943, said her mother never wanted a pat on the back. Vaughan died in 2005 at the age of 98, and is played in the film by Octavia Spencer.
“My mother would’ve probably said, ‘I was just doing my job,'” Hammond, 80, said, speaking in the Hampton bungalow where she grew up with her five siblings.
But what jobs they were. While military budget cuts and sequestration have hurt the economy here in recent decades, some 75 years ago the hungry wartime machine needed manpower, and womanpower, to fill its depleted ranks. This helped open the door for black female mathematicians, who were recruited through job bulletin boards and newspaper ads. Their job title? “Colored computers.”
Johnson, a math savant, graduated summa cum laude from what is now West Virginia State University at 18, and heard about the job through a family connection. Darden, who went to college at Hampton Institute and earned a master’s degree in math at Virginia State College, was hired to be a NASA data analyst out of graduate school in 1967, and went on to become an aerospace engineer.
The military boom lasted for decades, allowing the women and their families to have what Hammond described as a good life, despite enduring the indignities of segregation in the early years — working, eating and using restrooms apart from white colleagues.