Taraji P. Henson to Star in Untold Story of NASA’s Black Female Mathematicians

Taraji P. Henson (who is killing it on Empire as Cookie Lyon) has signed on to star in director Ted Melfi’s (St. Vincent) adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. Set during the Civil Rights era, this is the untold story of NASA’s black female mathematicians, focusing on four in particular; Henson will play Katherine Johnson, with the other roles yet to be cast.

Johnson was part of a group that got the nickname at the time of “the West Computers,” due to their segregated office, and which included Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith, and Barbara Holley. There’s not a lot of information on the book, as Melfi optioned it ahead of its publication; HarperCollins will publish it September 6. However, IndieWire found a statement from Shetterly on her website. The whole thing is worth reading, but here are some key details about the background of her book:

[..] For me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. There were also black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors and contractors, black shoe repair owners, wedding planners, real estate agents and undertakers, the occasional black lawyer and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

[…] After the start of World War II, Federal agencies and defense contractors across the country coped with a shortage of male number crunchers by hiring women with math skills. America’s aeronautical think tank, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the “NACA”), headquartered at Langley Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, created a pool of female mathematicians who analyzed endless arrays of data from wind tunnel tests of airplane prototypes. Women were thought to be more detail-oriented, their smaller hands better suited for repetitive tasks on the Friden manual adding machines. A “girl” could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job. And male engineers, once freed from laborious math work, could focus on more “serious” conceptual and analytical projects.

[…] These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus—thus the moniker, the West Computers. But despite the hardships of working under Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, these women went on to make significant contributions to aeronautics, astronautics, and America’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

Henson also tweeted about he news:

20th Century Fox is aiming for a January 2017 release date for Hidden Figures the movie, with production slated to begin very soon.

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