Katherine Johnson, Dorthy Vaughan, and Christine Darden may never be names as popular as Beyonce or Oprah Winfrey, but these women are some of the most influential black female mathematicians in American history. 75 years ago, during the space race boom, NASA (called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics or NACA at the time), needed every available math whiz it could get. Because of this, black women were granted opportunities with the organization as “Color Computers”. Dorthy Vaughan holds special recognition as the first black woman hired by the Aeronautics behemoth.
The current interest in black female STEM is now culminating in a movie version of the book “Hidden Figures” written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book follows the career of four black women and their time with NASA. The movie version will star Taraji P Henson (Empire), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and musical artist Janelle Monae.
From calculating rocket trajectories for Mercury and Apollo missions, to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Katherine Johnson in particular has led a charmed life. When asked about her movie portrayal however, Johnson was anything but enthusiastic. “I was never aggressive.” Mrs Johnson stated about her movie character. When reminded that she “successfully pressed her supervisor into admitting her into traditionally all-male meetings”, Mrs Johnson admitted “Well, I don’t ever wait for something.”
Despite their trailblazing achievements, each woman has been noted for their humility. Mrs Darden, who came after Mrs Johnson, worked at NASA as a data analyst and eventually an aerospace engineer. These women worked, ate, and used separate bathrooms than their white counterparts yet still were able to accomplish missions at a high level. Heroes aren’t just those who save people from burning buildings, they can also be young woman sitting at a desk with a pencil in hand doing math.