A segregated unit of mathematicians born of desperation during World War II became the secret to NASA’s success.
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Hidden Figures, a movie version of which will be released in January 2017 starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst.
It was on a trip to the post office during the spring of 1943 that Dorothy Vaughan spied the notice for the laundry job at Camp Pickett. But the word on another bulletin also caught her eye: mathematics. A federal agency in Hampton, Virginia, sought women to fill a number of mathematical jobs having to do with airplanes. The bulletin, the handiwork of Melvin Butler and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ personnel department, was most certainly meant for the eyes of the white, well-to-do students at the all-female State Teachers College there in Farmville. The laboratory had sent application forms, civil-service examination notices, and booklets describing the NACA’s work to the school’s job-placement offices, asking faculty and staff to spread the word about the open positions among potential candidates.
“This organization is considering a plan to visit certain women’s colleges in this area and interview senior students majoring in mathematics,” the laboratory wrote. “It is expected that outstanding students will be offered positions in this laboratory.” Dorothy’s house on South Main sat down the street from the college campus. Every morning as she walked the two blocks to her job at Moton High School, a U-shaped building perched on a triangular block at the south end of town, she saw the State Teachers College coeds with their books, disappearing into classrooms in their leafy sanctuary of a campus. Dorothy walked to school on the other side of the street, toeing the invisible line that separated them.