Duchess Harris’ grandmother Miriam Mann was a “human computer” at NASA before the main characters of “Hidden Figures.”
The Macalester College American studies professor spoke to about 80 UF students and community members in Smathers Library on Thursday evening, said professor Sharon Austin, director of the UF African American studies department. It was sponsored by the African American studies department, along with several other UF co-sponsors, she said. Harris discussed how the contributions of African American women in NASA were forgotten in history.
The movie and book “Hidden Figures” showed a few of these mathematicians to a wide audience for the first time, Harris said.
She said when she first told people her grandmother worked at NASA in the 60s, they didn’t believe her. So she went to NASA and received archives to prove it.
She co-wrote the book, “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA.”
The book is about how the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, now NASA, held some of the greatest minds in America, she said. But some of the most influential work happened behind the scenes.
“They were given the term ‘hidden’ because they were put in a place where white women weren’t working, so no one saw them,” Harris said.
One of the women featured in the movie, Mary Jackson, was a friend of Harris’ grandmother.
However, Harris said the movie leaves out some information like how they received their NASA positions. Black women became part of the space agency during World War II, when there weren’t enough educated white women to fill the spots of men who left for war.
Austin said people usually hear about men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when they study the 1960s, but not like the women portrayed in the movie.
“With the popularity of ‘Hidden Figures,’ there is a renewed interest in women like these ones,” Austin said.