The 2016 motion picture Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae zeroed in on the lives of three dynamic Black women and their contribution to the Space Race. The real-life hidden figures, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, are not only linked by their time at NASA, but also the fact all three women attended HBCUs.
Johnson, played by Henson in the film, was a math prodigy who graduated high school at 14 and college by 18. She attended West Virginia State College and was the first Black woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.
Vaughn, played by Spencer, was the acting supervisor of the group of Black engineers or “computers” employed by NASA. Like Johnson, Vaughan was a gifted mathematician who attended Wilberforce University.
Jackson attended Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, ahead of her pioneering career at NASA. According to accounts, she was NASA’s first Black woman hired as an engineer. Jackson and Johnson also shared another link by way of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Johnson, now 99, is the only living member of the trailblazing trio. All three women went on to have long careers and lives, and their legacy has been firmly established by way of Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book, “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” and the aforementioned film.
Another woman who was featured in the book, Dr. Christine Darden, is also connected to the trio via the HBCU link. Darden, who attended Hampton University and Virginia State University, is the first African-American woman promoted into the Senior Executive Service, which is the highest rank in federal civil service while working for NASA.
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