New York Times Bestselling Author Interviews Hidden Figure from Virginia
In conjunction with the new exhibition, "Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality," and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11; the first manned mission to land on the moon, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, in partnership with VPM, welcomed New York Times bestselling author of “Hidden Figures” Margot Lee Shetterly. Shetterly was joined by Dinwiddie County native, Dr. Gladys West, whose work calculating the Earth’s shape became the basis for Global Positioning System (GPS). Together, Shetterly and West discussed the profound, and often unacknowledged, ways that women of color have contributed to American innovation.
“Hidden Figures is, in a very real way, my origin story,” said Shetterly. “It's both who I am now and it is what I do.” Shetterly grew up watching her father, a retired atmospheric research scientist from the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, work alongside the women depicted in her award-winning book, “Hidden Figures.” “Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson were members of my childhood community and they were less known to us for trajectory analysis or supersonic flight plans than for their commitment to their churches or to their ability to raise scholarship money for needy local students through the civic organizations that they ran.” Shetterly went on to describe the four protagonists in her book as humble people who were simply trying to do their job. “For the last three years, it has been my job to make sure that these women and their accomplishments are written into history,” said Shetterly. In an effort to acknowledge Shetterly’s efforts, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture presented Shetterly with the Richard Slatten Award for Excellence in Virginia Biography. This award is supported by the Richard Slatten Endowment for Virginia History and the Slatten-MacDonald Fund. Both funds are administered by the Community Foundation for a greater Richmond.
Shetterly expressed her gratitude, not only for the award she was presented but for the “hidden figure” she had the opportunity to interview. “Dr. West, I'm even more grateful for your work every time I get into the car because I have a terrible sense of direction. If it wasn’t for you and your colleagues, I would be driving around lost in Greensboro, North Carolina.” When Shetterly asked West if she always wanted a career in math, West replied, “I don’t think I did. I was always the kind of person who wanted to be my best. So in school, I was good in all the subjects. When it was time to make a decision about what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to do everything!” West’s motivation to do everything and do it well contributed to her successful 42-year career at the Dahlgren Naval Support Facility, despite the fact that when West hired, Dahlgren had only just begun integration. West said, “There were three other black professionals. We were respectful to the leaders and tried to treat them the way we wanted them to treat us if we were in the same position.” Respect is a cornerstone in West’s approach to a successful career. When asked what advice she had for young people interested in entering STEM fields, West advised them to, “Listen to others and pay attention to what is being said because a lot of the time you can find good information in the comments.”
“Dr. West and the women of Hidden Figures are hidden no more. They have advanced the cause of democracy, equality, justice, and progress in our country since its founding in ways that were great and small, and in ways that are both public and private,” said Shetterly. “On July 16th, 1969, 50 years ago last month, the world watched astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins leave the earth for an 18-month mission that would deliver them to the surface of the moon and return them safely home to our cherished planet. Apollo 11 is an achievement, not for the United States, but for all of humanity. And so as you reflect upon that event, as you watch the documentaries in your coverage of that event and participate this year in the events commemoration, I hope that you think of these women each time you do so, because their intelligence, their ambition, their patriotism and their decades of hard work contributed to that success.”
VPM invites you to explore Chasing the Moon, a new PBS/American Experience film that reimagines the Great American Space Race to the moon for a new generation. Stream it on PBS Passport today! "Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” is showing now through March 29th at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.