HBCU Buzz

‘Hidden Figures’ Movie To Tell Story Of Three AKAs Who Helped NASA Catch Up In The Space Race

A new movie comes out in 2017 called Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly (out Sept. 6).

Taraji P. Henson is set to play the main role.

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The movie is set around Katherine Johnson, a trailblazing NASA mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Neil Armstrong and the 1969 Apollo 11 spaceflight to the Moon, and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (played by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae), who helped NASA catch up in the Space Race.

In an interview with USA Today the Howard University grad joked about playing a math whiz.

“All the science jargon is a bit overwhelming,” Henson said. “I look up the terms and I still don’t know what they mean, just like I didn’t know what they meant when I was in high school.”

But did you know that these women were and are members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.? From Watch The Yard:

“Katherine Johnson, the main character in the movie who is played by Taraji P. Henson, was born on August 26th, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, Greenbrier County, West Virginia and is currently an active member of the Lambda Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Because the county Johnson lived in did not offer schooling for blacks past the 8th grade, her parents sent her to school in Kanahwha County, West Virginia where she graduated from high school at the age of 14. She enrolled at West Virginia State College where she took every math course that the school offered. At one point she studied under W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to receive a PhD in math and they added extra math courses to the department just so that Johnson could take more. In 1937, at 18 years old, she graduated summa cum laude from undergrad and moved to Virginia to teach French and math at a grade school.

In 1938 she enrolled at West Virginia University where she became the one of three black students, and the only female, to integrate the graduate school after the US Supreme Court ruled that each state which provided a school for white students had to provide in-state education to blacks as well. In this ruling, states could satisfy this requirement by allowing blacks and whites to attend the same school or creating a second school for blacks.

In 1953, the Guidance and Navigation Department at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (what would later become NASA) offered Johnson a job.”

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Then there’s Wilberforce University grad Vaughan, who joined the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha at Wilberforce University in 1926:

“…She was born on Sept. 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Mo., and obtained her Bachelor of Science in 1929 from Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. She worked as a teacher at Robert R. Moton High School, in Farmville, Virginia and then moved to Newport News where she got a jobs as a mathematician at Langley Field for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of today’s NASA space program, where she was among the first African Americans hired as mathematicians.

Because the South was still segregated at the time, she was placed in a segregated section and was responsible for doing the mathematical computations for the engineers conducting aeronautical experiments. Dorothy worked in the Langley Research Center’s Analysis and Computation Division, and also participated in Scout Project (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test system) tests at Wallops Flight Facility.

She passed away at 98-years old on November 10th, 2008.”

janelle monae hidden figures

Finally, Jackson, played by Monae, was also a member of AKA and graduated from Hampton Institute, now University:

“…She was born in 1921, in Hampton, Virginia and graduated with highest honors from high school.  She earned her Bachelor of Science Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science at Hampton Institute and taught in Maryland before joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Mary retired from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 as an Aeronautical Engineer after 34 years.

She passed in 2005 and according to her obituary, “was a member of Bethel AME Church, the Newport News-Hampton Chapter of the Continental Societies, Inc., Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and a former member of numerous civic and social organizations.”

Hidden Figures will be released worldwide on Jan. 13.

Head over to Watch The Yard to read more.

Tommy G. Meade Jr.

Tommy G. Meade Jr.

Tommy G. Meade Jr. is the Editor-in-Chief of HBCU Buzz. He is a Central State University alum and is a proud member of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.

Meade formerly was a Staff Writer for HBCU Buzz. In 2012, he was selected by Luke Lawal Jr. to lead HBCU Buzz.