Q&A with Margot Lee Shetterly, author of ‘Hidden Figures’

NADINE MATTHEWS | 12/29/2016, midnight
One of the most highly anticipated and talked about films of the year is “Hidden Figures.” Starring Taraji P. Henson, ...
Margot Lee Shetterly Contributed

One of the most highly anticipated and talked about films of the year is “Hidden Figures.” Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Kevin Costner, the film is based on the true story of a group of extraordinary Black women (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson) from segregation-era Virginia, and the important contributions they made to the space program and defense industry in the United States during the Cold War. They all started out as talented mathematicians. Eventually, one became a computer programmer and another an aerospace engineer. The third was instrumental in facilitating astronaut John Glenn’s orbit of Earth. All rose very far in their careers at NASA. The person responsible for bringing that story to the public’s attention is Margot Lee Shetterly, who was also raised in Hampton, Va., albeit in the post-civil rights era. Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures,” upon which the movie is based, was recently published and has garnered overwhelmingly positive critical response.

AmNews: How did the book come about?

Shetterly: The backstory is that I was visiting my parents, and we ran into a woman who ran Sunday School at my church. My dad was talking about her, and it turned into this general conversation about Katherine Johnson and some of the other women, and the work that they had done there with NASA. My dad’s a NASA research scientist. I knew them. I knew they worked with him. Things like that. So my husband said, “Wait a minute. This is an amazing story. How come nobody knows about this?” Here is this outsider, my husband, who could see it with fresh eyes and say you know what, this is an amazing story. So it was really that moment that was the spark for me to want to tell the story—the book that became “Hidden Figures.” I wrote the book that I had wanted to read my entire life.

AmNews: Is the situation that occurred at NASA with these women a unique one, or are there other stories like this one in the United States?

Shetterly: I think it’s both. I think this is kind of a unique case because Hampton Virginia is a real community that’s been supported by the defense industry for a very long time, and NASA was a part of that. So that is something that sort of made it kind of unique. There were always a lot of people who were technical in not just NASA but also engineers for the military, people who riveted ships, and you know all variety of technical jobs. I think there are similar places but I think that Hampton is kind of unique. It is surrounded by this population of well-educated, middle-class African-Americans. You’ve got Hampton University right there. I mean, it used to be called Hampton Institute, it is but one of the oldest Black colleges. You’ve got Howard University not so far away. You’ve got A&T, Elizabeth City State, Norfolk State, Virginia State. I mean the number of Black colleges within like a day’s drive are so many. So you have this amazing supply of qualified Black labor that I think in a lot of other places you didn’t find because of the proximity to HBCUs. I think it was the coincidence of the war industry in WWII. It was that the war industry needed people and they were able to find them not that far away.