Hampton History Museum to spotlight ‘Hidden Figures’

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Katherine Johnson, NASA pioneer
Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who played a key role in the space program, grew up fascinated by numbers, according to her biography on NASA’s website. (Courtesy NASA Langley Research Center)

When they went to work for the federal government, they were part of a group referred to as “girl computers.”

Because Virginia was segregated at the time, the African American women mathematicians who powered the dawn of space flight couldn’t work alongside their white male colleagues.

Decades later, they’re getting their due from history, Hollywood and an upcoming exhibit at the Hampton History Museum, according to a release.

They are the women behind “Hidden Figures,” a film that opened with a limited release on Christmas Day and opens nationwide on Jan. 6.

It tells the story of African American women who worked at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory as part of the human-computer pool. Their job was to process incoming data from the wind tunnel and flight tests.

Segregation laws mandated keeping the African American employees, known as “West Area Computers,” separate from whites who did the same work.

Mary Jackson at Langley
Hampton native Mary Jackson, seen in front on the far right, was a so called “human computer” during the early days of the space program. (Courtesy NASA Langley Research Center)

In the 1950s, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA) integrated both the human computers and its general scientific community.

With an exhibit titled “When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA’s Human Computers,” the Hampton History Museum, 120 Old Hampton Ln., is paying tribute to three of these pioneers: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, a Hampton native.

The exhibit opens on Jan. 21, 2017.

Admission costs $5 for adults and $4 for senior citizens, active-duty military, active NASA employees, children between the ages of four and 12 and members of the American Automobile Association.

For more information, call 757-727-1610 or go to www.hamptonhistorymuseum.org.