“We are the breath of our ancestors” rang the harmonized voices of Old Dominion’s choir, an appropriate sentiment for the events unfolding the night of January 11th.
The song, “We Are,” by acclaimed all female, all African American acappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, encompassed the themes explored in the university’s 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Observance.
Celebrating the goals of the civil rights leader, this year specifically focused on black women’s achievements embodying King’s legacy. Hugo Owens awards were given out to local women and organizations who have aided in making King’s dreams reality. Recipients included Clenise Platt, a community leader who is slated to become the youngest and first African-American woman governor of Rotary district 7600, along with the Woman’s Club of Norfolk, which at 100 is Hampton Roads’ oldest local African American women’s organizations.
The main event was speaker Margot Lee Shetterly — if you don’t recognize the Hampton native by name, the title of her first novel, “Hidden Figures,” might ring a bell. The best-seller, released in September, was turned into a movie and hit theaters strong last week, beating out Star Wars for the #1 spot at the box office.
The story follows four women, two of which received honorary degrees from ODU. During the years of 1943 through 1968, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Christine Darden worked with other black female mathematicians at NASA Langley in a segregated room. With only pen and paper, these women computed throughout World War II and eventually calculated the trajectories that would orbit John Glenn around Earth and send Neil Armstrong to the moon.
Coming from no farther than West Virginia, these extraordinary women are weaved in the fabric of our state’s history. “This is a celebration of this place and it’s people,” Shetterly said. “We have always known this region is a place of fascinating and often complicated history, but now the world knows it, too.”
During a time when segregation was still heavily prevalent and women couldn’t even get a credit card in their own name, “the women of ‘Hidden Figures’ upend [what it means to] be female, to be black, to be a scientist, and to be American,” Shetterly said.
Mary Jackson had to apply for special permission at Hampton High School to take advanced math classes, and went on to become presumably the country’s first black female aerospace engineer. Catharine Johnson was born in 1918, a birth year where black baby girls faced just a 2% chance of graduating high school. She calculated the orbital space flight that allowed John Glenn to achieve “American domination of the heavens” during the Space Race. Christine Darden, from a segregated grade school with second hand textbooks and no science lab, wrote the computer program that set the industry standard for sonic boom minimization, and became NASA’s leading expert on the topic.
While the night focused on King’s ideals to improve the lives of African-Americans, and how those same values are applied to women, Shetterly wanted to make clear these women “wanted to be what John Glenn says in the movie — the ‘smart one,’ [just] the right person for the job.” She emphasized that the women of the “Hidden Figures” story needs to be told “not just because they are black or because they are women, but because they too are part of our great American epic.”
In the shadows instead of out on the streets, Shetterly said, these women were “marching not with their feet, but with their mathematical talent” for racial and gender equality. There’s an added layer of nobility with this particular group’s civil rights work, having faced dehumanizing segregation at work daily. However, Shetterly said, “they wore their professional clothes like armor, [and] they wielded their mathematical talent like a weapon, warding off the presumption of inferiority because they were black or female.”
Shetterly’s father worked alongside these women at NASA, and the author only heard their story when her husband, Aran Shetterly, inquired about her father’s time there. That was 6 years ago, and ever since Margot Lee Shetterly has interviewed the women and spent time with their families to uncover the untold story. Their amazing achievements inspired her to found the Human Computer Project, which works to archive all the stories of African-American women who worked as computer scientists and mathematicians at the height of NASA that history has skimmed past.
With both Black History Month and Women’s History Month just around the corner, Shetterly pointed out our tendency to “put people and leaders and history into separate buckets.” These celebrations, she said, tend to somewhat remove individual’s accomplishments from general American history, creating what she called an “incomplete picture of how history happen and how progress is made.”
The women of “Hidden Figures” felt the weight of the responsibilities the ODU choir hummed and Sweet Honey in the Rock chanted. “They knew,” Shetterly said, “that every action they took over the course of their long careers would have implications for the next generation of people who looked like them.” Along with being great at their job, Shetterly said, these women and their colleagues were out to prove “that excellence has neither color nor gender.”
When an audience member asked if the film would have a sequel, Shetterly responded that it won’t be a direct second act, but she’s working on another book, and hopes for a long career in telling stories untold.