Hidden Figures Summary & Study Guide

Margot Lee Shetterly
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Hidden Figures Summary & Study Guide Description

Hidden Figures Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

The following version of this book was used to create this guide: Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures. HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. The study guide uses references to African Americans as "blacks" and Caucasians as "whites" to reflect the language used by the author of Hidden Figures; this language also reflects usage during the particular moment in history that the book is tracking.

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, is the story of the contributions made to space flight by the black women who worked at the Langley Research Center in the early days of aeronautical research. It reveals little-known history about the crucial work performed by black women amidst segregation and discrimination that led to America putting a man into space.

The Prologue of the book explained Shetterly’s discovery of the work done by black women at Langley and her reasons for writing the book. She believed that the contributions made by black women deserved to be recognized not as a story about black women, or even just women, but as a story that is integral to American history.

In Chapter One, the Langley Research Center was growing rapidly due to demands for increased air power in an effort to defeat the Axis powers during World War II. Because men were involved in the military effort and white women were already working the jobs vacated by men, Melvin Butler turned to hiring black women to do the computing jobs at Langley.

In Chapter Two, Dorothy Vaughan, a highly intelligent black high school teacher, applied for a job at Langley.

In Chapter Three, Dorothy was hired to work at Langley at twice the pay of her teaching job. Dorothy and her husband were friends with the Colemans who had a daughter named Katherine. Katherine would later take a job at Langley as well.

In Chapter Four, Dorothy arrived in Newport News, which was growing increasingly crowded due to people moving there for work. The segregated transit systems made travel difficult for everyone and sometimes led to conflicts between the races. Black soldiers were sometimes the targets of violence from other Americans who believed they had overstepped their boundaries. Black Americans were expected to support the war effort and fight for the rights of Jews when they were not receiving equal rights in America.

In Chapter Five, Dorothy starts her job in West Computing at Langley. West Computing was the black women computers division. Not only was their work area segregated, they were also expected to eat at a table marked “colored computers.” Miriam Mann hid the table sign until management gave up and stopped labeling the table.

In Chapter Six, NACA worked toward improving planes for the military. Discoveries occurred rapidly and a course was created for female computers to help them reach the level of junior engineer. Women were responsible for the calculations using raw data from the testing being done, but they were not given credit for their work by the male engineers.

In Chapter Seven, Dorothy signed a lease on an apartment in Newport News, which was difficult because there was a shortage of black housing. When the war ended, many workers were laid off and some employers went back to hiring only whites.

Chapter Eight focused on Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. Katherine graduated from high school at an early age and attended college on a scholarship. She was extremely bright and charismatic. While at college she was chosen to be one of three black students to integrate a white college. Katherine married Jimmy Goble and dropped out of the graduate program when she became pregnant.

In Chapter Nine Dorothy Vaughan continued to build her life in Newport News. She moved her children to live with her while her husband continued his itinerant hotel job. Although the workforce at Langley was temporarily reduced, there was a defense industry boom that led to more people being hired. Engineering was still male dominated. Researchers worked toward breaking the sound barrier and women were on the ground at the testing site to analyze the data. Several of the women working at Langley began achieving great things, including becoming authors in some of the research reports. Dorothy became the head of West Computing after Blanche Sponsler became ill and died.

Chapter Ten focuses on Mary Jackson. Mary was a math teacher who took a job at the USO during the war. She was humanitarian minded and led a Girl Scout troop where she taught the girls not to put limits on themselves. She started work at Langley in a clerical position and later became a computer. The Rosenburg investigation created racial tension at Langley and one black woman was fired. Black leaders decried the U.S. trying to make allies of black and brown countries while discriminating against its own black citizens. President Truman desegregated the military and called for fair treatment of black government employees.

In Chapter 11, Mary Jackson was sent to work on a project on the East Side. The white computers laughed at her when she asked where the bathroom was. She was angry and told Kaz about it. He invited her to work for him. Later, Mary was given an assignment and when the numbers did not come out as expected, the division chief believed she had made an error. Mary stuck by her numbers and they discovered that the division chief gave her the wrong starting numbers.

In Chapter 12, Katherine Goble attended a wedding and learned about the jobs that were available to black female mathematicians. She and her husband decided to move to Newport News and Katherine began working as a computer. Katherine was assigned to a job in the Flight Research Division. On her first day there she sat down next to a white engineer who got up and walked away from her. She decided not to let it bother her and the two later become friends.

At the start of Chapter 13, Katherine’s job in the Flight Research Division seemed as though it could become permanent. Dorothy Vaughan talked to Katherine’s manager and insisted he either give her a raise or send her back to West Computing. Katherine’s job was made permanent. She was assigned to research the crash of a small plane and her findings led to changes in air traffic regulations to avoid wake turbulence accidents.

Katherine fit in well with the team and she was well liked. Her experience of segregation was different from some of the other women in part because her coworkers were more progressive and also because she was very light skinned and people sometimes were not sure if she was black.

Katherine’s husband died from a brain tumor.

In Chapter 14, Dorothy Vaughan began to see that the job of computers would eventually change due to the use of mechanical computers. She also knew that the work done at Langley would lead to space travel. Dorothy knew that if the West Computers were to keep their jobs they would need to learn to use the calculators and computers.

At Moton High School, where Dorothy once taught, there was a bus accident that was the result of buses in poor condition. The deaths of five students led the students there to start a lawsuit that became part of Brown v. Board of Education. Americans began to wonder what they might be losing in terms of brainpower by neglecting black students.

Mary Jackson began an engineer training program, but first had to get permission to attend classes at Hampton High School, which was segregated. She was granted a pass and was shocked to see how shabby the white school was.

Chapter 15 focuses on Christine Mann, who was a high school student at the time schools in Little Rock, Arkansas were in the news because of black students trying to integrate them. The president had to send in the U.S. Army to escort the students to school.

The Russians launched Sputnik and the space race began.

Christine was in high school when Brown v. Board of Education was ruled on. She wondered how she and her fellow students would be able to compete with white students.

In Chapter 16 the employees at Langley were being pushed to get an American into space as quickly as possible. Katherine Goble’s team began working with the PARD team toward the spaceflight effort. Meanwhile, Dorothy Vaughan’s West Computers group was shrinking, as many of the black women were not permanent members of other teams.

While the Civil Rights movement was gaining ground, many were still fighting against integration. The state of Virginia passed laws that would allow schools to be closed rather than to integrate. However, the U.S. was competing with Russia for allies in countries with mainly black and brown citizens, which led to the weakening of the Jim Crow laws.

The U.S. government decided to consolidate all spaceflight research facilities into one organization under the name of NASA. As part of that move, West Computing was disbanded, which meant that Dorothy Vaughan was no longer in a management position.

In Chapter 17, Katherine Goble was not allowed to attend meetings with the engineers because she was a woman. She questioned this until the engineers eventually allowed her to attend the meetings.

In Chapter 18, schools in Virginia were closed to avoid integration. Katherine met a man named James Johnson, whom she later married. She continued to work with her team to calculate the trajectories for Project Mercury and also authored a report on the orbital path.

In Chapter 19, Mary Jackson helped her son build a car for the soap box derby, which he went on to win. She worked toward several humanitarian efforts, including advocating for one council to govern both black and white Girl Scouts. She also partnered with a white colleague to speak to black students at a conference.

In Chapter 20, Nasa tested the Mercury capsule while Christine Mann, a student at the time, who was in college. Dorothy Vaughan was working alongside many of the women from East Computing as a computer programmer.

Russia sent a man into orbit before America, further fueling NASA’s mission of getting a man into space. President Kennedy declared that America would send a man to the moon.

In Chapter 21, the launch date for Project Mercury was set. Astronaut John Glenn requested that Katherine double check the numbers generated by the mechanical computer. All of the film footage shot at NASA shows white men even though there were many black people working there as well. Project Mercury was successful and John Glenn was lauded as a hero while Katherine was celebrated by the black community.

In Chapter 22, the government released a brochure celebrating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Katherine was the only black woman to appear in it. Dorothy Vaughan celebrated 20 years at Langley.

Few black people were applying at Langley because the area was still segregated. When new black people started at Langley, the other black employees took care to help them adjust to the area.

In Chapter 23, Katherine was at a conference for her sorority during the Apollo 11 launch. Many people objected to the space program as money spent frivolously while the poor struggled to feed their families and there was a shortage of black housing. Even black Americans who supported the space program were upset that the program did not have any black people in key positions.

In the Epilogue, Shetterly concludes the stories of the black women she has written about. Katherine continued working at Langley and had a hand in the Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 missions. Mary Jackson eventually took a job in Human Resources where she championed the advancement of women’s careers. Christine Darden started work at NASA as a data analyst and worked her way up through the ranks. Dorothy Vaughan never achieved her final goal, but recognized that the work she did at Langley made it possible for future generations of women to work in science and mathematics.

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