The film Hidden Figures, while high in entertainment value, takes some liberties with history. That’s not unusual for the movie industry. For starters, the book the movie is based on is 270 pages. Taking the rule of thumb that a screenplay requires one page for one minute, meaning the screenplay for the movie clocks in around 120 pages, right there is a lot of cutting to do. The first 172 pages of the book covers ground before NASA was founded. I suspect the movie pushed these events into the NASA era as the public is familiar with NASA, but not its predecessor NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). Consequently, the movie misses out on World War II being a key trigger of the Civil Rights movement in and beyond NASA.
NACA existed from 1915 until 1958 when it was folded into NASA. NACA wind tunnels and research facilities played a crucial role in advancing aviation from propeller to jet engines and towards the birth of the space age. As the threat of war became imminent in 1939, NACA’s Langley facilities received publicity from Life Magazine as America needed to upgrade its aviation research. The war would also change the American economy from one that endured double-digit unemployment from the start of the Great Depression in 1930 to a high pressure economy with severe labor shortages. This shortage caused wartime employers to think out of the box when it came to traditional hiring practices.
The unemployment rate dropped from 14.6% in 1940 to a record low 1.2% in 1944. Below are the number of jobs created each month during the war. In 1942, 3.8 million new jobs were created. To put this in perspective, with a much larger workforce, 2 million jobs were created in 2016.
The story of Rosie the Riveter is well-known as millions of new job opportunities opened up for women in war production. What is not as well-known are the opportunities this opened up for African-Americans who beforehand were routinely discriminated in all but a narrow range of jobs. In the case of the women in Hidden Figures, they typically would have taken teaching jobs in a segregated black school. With the war ramping up the need for aviation research at Langley, opportunity came knocking for those who ordinarily would not have gotten it.
Located in Virginia, Langley was segregated during World War II. Women were employed as computers to handle what was considered the drudgery of mathematical calculations. Prior to World War II, America would demobilize after a war and Langley would have laid off many of its employees. However, with the upcoming Cold War, much of the workforce stayed on. And once women and African-Americans got the taste of opportunity, they were hungry for more. One can trace a direct line between the massive labor shortages of World War II, the beginnings of integration during the 1950’s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
The effort to integrate Langley occurred during the 1950’s before it became part of NASA. Integration at the base tended to go more smoothly than the surrounding region. While the computers were assigned to engineering groups, effectively ending the white and black computing departments, the state of Virginia was fiercely fighting school integration. Some school districts opted to shut down entirely while other towns opened all-white private academies to preserve segregation. At the university level, Virginia offered out-of-state scholarships to black students to keep the state university all white. These attempts to maintain segregation still lingered in the South when I moved to Texas in 1978. Some schools chose to classify each white student as gifted to enforce segregation with all-white advanced classes.
The book delves into this matter more so than the movie. When Mary Jackson wins court approval to attend an all-white school, the book notes her disappointment at the run down appearance of the building. The cost of needlessly operating duel school systems to maintain segregation was inefficient and lowered the educational experience for both white and black students. This is not restricted to the Deep South. I experienced integration in the Buffalo school system from 1976-77. It was no big deal for myself and my classmates but the same cannot be said for many of the parents. Over the next few decades, the schools re-segregated as whites moved out of the city into all white suburbs.
Metro areas which lack diversity tend to be economically stagnant. Young talent in fast growing industries favor diversity as that reduces the odds their talent will be left on the table. The longer Buffalo attempts to maintain segregation, the more difficulty it will have adapting to the new high-tech economy. The ability to adapt is a key feature in Hidden Figures and on an personal level, the main characters adaptation skills kept them gainfully employed at Langley for several decades.
The three decades from 1940-69 encompassed three distinct eras in aviation. First was the propeller planes of World War II, then the jet age of the Korean War, and finally rocket propulsion of the space age. As the book notes, America was slower than Europe to embrace rocket technology. Going back to when Robert Goddard was ridiculed by the New York Times for his proposals to use rockets for space exploration, America viewed this type of work as science fiction. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was named as such to disguise its rocket research program. While the German V-2 brought rockets into reality, at Langley, up until Sputnik, the engineers were discouraged from working on space research.
When America was hurled into the space age in 1957, those at Langley who could not adapt were let go and missed out on the Apollo era. Those who did adapt, as demonstrated in both the book and the movie, stayed on until their retirements in the 1970’s and ’80’s. The retirement parties given were reflective of a different era in employee relations.
When I started working in the early 80’s, retirement parties were a common event. At Exxon, the Graphic Arts Department would put together a poster representing the retiree’s career. The last retirement party I’ve been to was in the early 90’s. In the private sector at least, very few people make it to voluntary retirement, usually getting let go before then. And the process is as impersonal as it can possibly be. The idea being that’s how Ayn Rand would have wanted it, or something. The current lack of social structure and churning of employees in the corporate world reduces productivity as job knowledge is chronically allowed to walk out the door.
The engineers at Langley were not prone to let talent lie fallow. The professional crew came from all parts of the country and had varying attitudes towards women and blacks in the workplace. It was one such engineer who allowed Mary Jackson to work in the air tunnel and eventually move up as an engineer. Another engineer convinced his superior to allow Katherine Johnson’s name as co-author on a research paper as “she was doing most of the work anyway.” The women at Langley were numerous enough to build an extensive support network which helped them advance. The African-American men not so much. They dealt with segregation via avoidance such as eating lunch in a black owned restaurant off the Langley premises to elude the segregated cafeteria. Unlike as depicted in the movie, the most egregious episodes of discrimination came from the locals who were mostly employed as technicians. One such example was a tech sabotaging a wind tunnel experiment run by a black engineer. The engineer’s manager chewed out the tech publicly to prevent another occurence.
What lessons can we take from this history? On an individual/company level, look at your employees talent and use it to the fullest for optimal performance. That means allowing for diversity in the workplace. To use an analogy, would major league baseball been better off without the talents of Henry Aaron and Willie Mays? We know the answer as teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who were slow to integrate, suffered long stretches of losing seasons in the 1960’s as a result. Also, adaptability is key for survival. The instinct to stand pat should be avoided. On a macro level, a policy of pushing for a high pressure economy can induce societal and economic change as employers are forced to innovate in their hiring practices. While we can’t restore the past to bring about positive results, we can at least take home the proper lessons of history.
*Image above is from Katherine Johnson’s first author credit. The full research paper can be found here. Another notable effort from Johnson is on the navigation for Solar System exploration which can be found here.