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“Hidden Figures” Not Hidden to This Saint

“Hidden Figures” Not Hidden to This Saint
Jim Norman

The movie Hidden Figures, about the group of brilliant Black women who worked at NASA in the 1950s, was an ideal topic for a Social Justice Series session on the hilltop during Black History Month. And Dr. Miriam “Duchess” Harris ’87, P ’25, the granddaughter of one of those women, was the perfect person to lead that discussion. 

First, students were treated to a showing of the movie hosted by the DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) Council on February 1. The following week, they had the opportunity to attend “Hidden Figures: The History Behind the Movie,” where Duchess shared stories and experiences of her grandmother, Miriam Daniel Mann, one of 11 "human computers" who made key contributions to America’s space program.

Duchess told of a woman who was born in 1907 in Covington, Georgia—just 40 years after slavery ended—and would go on to earn a chemistry degree, teach high school chemistry in her hometown, and then move to Virginia with her husband William, who started a teaching job at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). So how exactly did Miriam, who had set her chemistry degree aside to become a “faculty wife” and mother, end up at NASA?

“World War II broke out. All of the local employees at NASA were for the most part White men, and many of them were going to be deployed,” Duchess explained. “Officials went throughout the town looking for White women who were educated to work at NASA—but they were not being educated in the south at the rate they were in the north at that time. So the officials went over to the campus of Hampton and asked if there were enough Black women who could pass the Civil Service Exam. There were 11, and one was my grandmother. That is how she ended up going to NASA.”

After hearing countless stories of her grandmother growing up, Duchess decided that she wanted to learn more and write a book about that vibrant time in history. As a naturally curious academic—she is an American Studies and Political Science Professor at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota—Duchess traveled to NASA’s Langley Research Center with one of her students to comb through the archives there. It turned out to be an eye-opening trip.

“One of the reasons my grandmother was able to get this job was because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, which desegregated federal jobs—but it did not desegregate federal space,” Duchess told students. “That is why the Black women were located on the west side of the grounds, and they were literally hidden from the White people who worked at NASA because it was not completely legal for them to be there. They ended up becoming the ‘West Area Computers.’ That was code terminology for the people with high enough clearance to know that there were actually ‘colored computers.’ They would ask, ‘Who did the computing?’ If they heard ‘West Area Computers,’ they knew it was those women.”

Duchess spoke of the challenges her grandmother and others faced during that time of unrest from World War II through the Civil Rights Movement. She cited the important work of Black leaders like Booker T. Washington, the preeminent educator who was born enslaved but eventually opened Tuskegee University in Alabama, and Annie Easley, who worked at NASA in Cleveland, Ohio, and ended up becoming a Civil Rights activist and the agency’s first-ever Equal Opportunity Counselor.

While researching her book, Duchess joined forces with Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the novel that inspired the Hidden Figures movie. “The way Margot and I collaborated was that I had college letterhead and a research grant and a student, but she had access to actually getting on the grounds of NASA because security is so intense,” Duchess recalled. “She had that access because her dad was one of the first Black male engineers to work at NASA in the 1970s. Margot decided she wanted to do a book that would be popular for adults. I wanted to have a teaching tool. We worked well together because we had different agendas.”

Published in 2018, Duchess’s book, Hidden Heroes: The Human Computers of NASA, continues to be used in high school classrooms today.