‘Hidden Figures’ discuss their pioneering work in mathematics

Darden, Naval & Smith (Photo courtesy of CNS).

RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) – When Dr. Christine Darden was growing up, African American women like herself had limited career prospects. “Most black females got jobs as teachers or nurses or in someone’s house,” she said.

But in school, Darden found a passion for geometry, and that made her “fall in love with math.” This led to a job as a “human computer” and later the leader of the Sonic Boom Team at NASA – and a key figure in the best-selling book “Hidden Figures,” the precursor to the highly acclaimed movie.

On Sunday, Darden and another pioneer – Estelle Amy Smith, a mathematician at Dahlgren Naval Base – discussed their careers at an event hosted by the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

The discussion at the Ebenezer Baptist Church next to the museum was moderated by Michael Paul Williams, a journalist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I feel so out of place,” Williams said. “A guy who could never figure out geometry is next to two geniuses.”

Darden has watched the movie “Hidden Figures” 10 times since its release. She said certain scenes in the film weren’t true to life.

In the movie, for example, the mathematician Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) cannot use the bathroom in the building where she works because it is for whites only – and so she must run across the Langley Research Center grounds to the “colored ladies room.” But Darden said that didn’t really happen: Johnson never worked in a building without a bathroom.

Moreover, in the film, NASA’s first African-American manager, Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) steals a book from the library so she can teach herself the programming language Fortran. Vaughan’s grandchildren have come out saying that she never stole the book, Darden said.

Darden, Naval & Smith (Photo courtesy of CNS).
Darden, Naval & Smith (Photo courtesy of CNS).

 

Darden encourages people to read the “Hidden Figures” book because it provides historical context that the movie does not. That, and “I’m in the book, and I’m not in the movie,” Darden said.

Like the women in the movie, Darden dealt with issues of discrimination based on her race and gender. It bothered Darden that women with the same qualifications as male mathematicians were put in a separate room, where they would solve equations for their male counterparts. Darden said that sometimes she would not know what the equation she was figuring out was being used for. She confronted a boss “several levels up” about this issue.

The supervisor answered, “‘Well, no one ever asked that question before’ – I must have caught him on a good day,” Darden recalled, adding that she subsequently received a promotion into the male-dominated department.

One reason Darden believes that women like herself went for so long as hidden figures is because there was no one they could talk to about their work.

“So if I went home and said, ‘I’m working on so and so,’ no one would know what I was talking about,” Darden said. “No one dug enough to know what you were talking about.”

Unlike Darden, Smith knew from a young age that she had a talent for math. In elementary school, teachers would ask her how to solve math problems, so they could see how Smith did it, and then explain the method the class.

Darden and Smith believe that there are many other women whose stories have gone untold. Darden said more women like Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of “Hidden Figures,” should write these stories down to educate the public.

“It’s not only black history but American history,” said Adele Johnson, interim executive director of the Black History Museum. “It made me wonder what else I don’t know.”