The pieces for Margot Lee Shetterly’s book were always there.
They were in her father’s workplace at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They were on the route to his office along Mercury Boulevard, named after America’s first man-in-space program.
They were in her church, in her mother’s sorority and with her father in the National Technical Association, the country’s oldest African-American technical organization.
Those pieces finally coalesced into her recently released book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which debuted in the top 10 of the New York Times’ bestseller list on Sept. 25. It follows the paths of female African-American mathematicians and computer programmers who furthered the space program and calculated the launch windows for NASA’s first flights in 1961. A movie based on the book, starring Oscar winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, will be released in December.
Shetterly (Com ’91) had grown up with scientists, technologists and physicists at church and family gatherings. She didn’t realize how historic these women were until she started doing the research in 2010.
“When you grow up in the ’70s and ’80s, you get black history as slavery,” Shetterly said in a phone interview from her home in Charlottesville. “It’s a history that isn’t complete, and I’m looking in the mirror and not seeing myself. … It’s one thing to realize that, but it’s another thing to say, ‘I am an agent for change.’”
Shetterly got the idea for her book when she and her husband were visiting her parents in Hampton in 2010. Her father, Robert Lee III, mentioned that her former Sunday school teacher had been a human computer at NASA.
He rattled off the names of other women, African-American and white, who, beginning in the 1930s, used their acute math skills, slide rules and adding machines to do what no one had done before. Hundreds of women worked as computers, but the Jim Crow culture kept the black women segregated into their own West Area Computing group, housing and bathrooms. The women still progressed.
Her father had joined NASA in 1966 as a co-op college student from Norfolk State University and worked with several of these women over the years. He retired from NASA in 2004 as a climate scientist who had lectured around the world. He was in the midst of pioneers but didn’t see it as historic.
“There were so many African Americans around me, and I just thought of it as we were doing our jobs,” Lee says. “A lot of times we didn’t know what the other person was doing. There were so many things going on.”
He and his wife gave the names of human computers they knew to their daughter. Several of the women were in their 70s, 80s and 90s. For those who were deceased, Shetterly interviewed their children and grandchildren to learn details. She mined NASA’s thick files and oral histories. She scoured the local African-American newspapers that detailed the women’s off-duty lives.
Shetterly had studied finance at UVA and spent five years working on Wall Street as a junior trader at J.P. Morgan & Co. and then a senior associate at Merrill Lynch & Co. In 2005, she and her husband, who is a writer, moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, after a friend told them that the growing number of expatriates in Mexico would devour an English-language magazine. Newly married and adventurous, the couple packed up and started their own publication. Still, Shetterly didn’t see herself as a writer. “I enjoyed writing, making books and telling stories when I was younger, but there was a part of me that said if I had something to say, I’d write,” she says.
She found something to write.
It took her three years to wrestle the research into a manageable form, and she wrote a book proposal that was rejected more than a dozen times. Once it was sold, the proposal caught the attention of Academy Award-winning producer Donna Gigliotti.
For Shetterly, that the women are finally being recognized has been one of the best results of her work. Another is the satisfaction of knowing she’s contributing to a more accurate account of history.
When she was a university guide at UVA, Shetterly says the stories were about Thomas Jefferson and told through his lens. Recently, she, her two sisters, Lauren Lee Colley (Arch ’96) and Jocelyn Lee (Col ’00), and their mother took a garden tour at the University as well as Monticello’s garden and slavery tours. Shetterly was struck by how the stories now include African-American and Native-American narratives.
“As the generations have evolved and people have changed their perspective on what history means, you have no choice but to include all of these distinct perspectives,” she says. “And that’s what Hidden Figures is all about.”