Making an Entrance: The First Black Women at Langley Lab

In this excerpt from “Hidden Figures,” Margot Lee Shetterly describes the integration of black female mathematicians at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

The following is an excerpt from Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Raceby Margot Lee Shetterly. Listen to the interview Friday, October 21st at 2pm ET.

Long before America’s aircraft manufacturers placed one of their newly-conceived flying machines into production, they sent a working prototype to the Langley laboratory so that the design could be tested and improved. One of every three models already in production made its way to the lab for drag cleanup: The engineers parked the planes in the wind tunnels, making note of air-disturbing surfaces, bloated fuselages, uneven wing geometries. The engineers subjected the airplanes to tests, capturing and analyzing the numbers, recommending improvements, some slight, others significant. Even small improvements in speed and efficiency multiplied over millions of pilot miles added up to a difference that could tip the long term balance of the war in the Allies’ favor.

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Unless, of course, Melvin Butler failed to feed the three-shift, six-day a week operation with fresh minds. The engineers were one thing, but each engineer required the support of a number of others: craftsmen to build airplane models tested in the tunnels, mechanics to maintain the tunnels, and the nimble number crunchers to process the numerical deluge that issued from the research. Lift and drag, friction and flow. What was a plane but a bundle of physics? Physics, of course, meant math, and math meant mathematicians. And since the middle of the last decade, mathematicians had meant women. Langley’s first female computing pool, started in 1935, had caused an uproar among the men of the laboratory. How could a female mind process something so rigorous and precise as math? The very idea, investing $500 on a calculating machine so it could be used by a girl! But the “girls” had been good, very good—better at computing, in fact, than many of the engineers, the men themselves grudgingly admitted. With only a handful of girls winning the title “mathematician”—a professional designation that put them on equal footing with entry-level male employees—the fact that most computers were designated as lower-paid “subprofessionals” provided a boost to the laboratory’s bottom line.

Nearly two years after Randolph’s 1941 showdown, as the laboratory’s personnel needs reached the Civil Service, applications of qualified Negro female candidates began filtering in to the Service Building, presenting themselves for consideration by the laboratory’s Personnel staff. No photo advised as to the applicant’s color—that requirement, instituted by the administration of Woodrow Wilson, had been stricken down the year as the Roosevelt administration tried to dismantle discrimination in hiring practices. But their alma maters tipped the hand—West Virginia State University, Howard, Arkansas AN&M, Hampton Institute just across town, all Negro schools. Nothing in the applications indicated anything less than fitness for the job. If anything, they came with more experience that the white girls, with many years of teaching experience on top of math or science degrees.

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

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They would need a separate space for them, Melvin Butler knew. Then they would have to appoint someone to head the new group, an experienced girl—white, obviously—someone whose disposition suited the sensitivity of the assignment. The Warehouse Building, a brand new space on the West Side of the laboratory, a part of the campus that was still more wilderness than anything resembling a workplace, could be just the thing. His brother Sherwood’s group had already moved there, as had some of the employees in the Personnel Department. With around the clock pressure to test the airplanes queued up in the hangar, engineers would welcome the additional hands. So many of the engineers were Northerners, agnostic on the racial issue, but devout when it came to mathematical talent.

Melvin Butler himself hailed from Portsmouth, just across the bay from Hampton. It required no imagination on his part to guess what some of his fellow Virginians might think of the idea of integrating Negro women into Langley’s offices, the “come-heres” (as the Virginians called the newcomers to the state) and their strange ways be damned. There had always been Negro employees in the lab—janitors, cafeteria workers, mechanic’s assistants, groundskeepers. But opening the door to Negroes who would be considered professional peers, that was something new.

Butler proceeded with discretion: no big announcement in the Daily Press, no fanfare in Air Scoop. But he also proceeded with direction: nothing to herald the arrival of the Negro women to the laboratory, but nothing to derail their arrival either. Maybe Melvin Butler was progressive for his time and place, or maybe he was just a functionary carrying out his duty. Maybe he was both. State law—and Virginia custom—kept him from truly progressive action, but perhaps the promise of a segregated office was just the cover he needed to get the black women in the door, a trojan horse of segregation opening the door to integration. Whatever his personal feelings on race, one thing was clear: Butler was a Langley man through and through, loyal to the laboratory, to its mission, to its worldview, and to its charge during the war. By nature—and by mandate—he, and the rest of the NACA, were all about practical solutions.

So, too, was A. Philip Randolph. The leader’s indefatigable activism, unrelenting pressure and superior organizing skills laid the foundation for what, in the 1960s, would come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement. But there was no way that Randolph, or the men at the Laboratory, or anyone else could have predicted that the hiring of a group of black female mathematicians at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory would end at the moon.

Still shrouded from view were the great aeronautical advances that would crush the notion that faster-than-sound flight was a physical impossibility, the electronic calculating devices that would amplify the power of science and technology to unthinkable dimensions. No one had fully anticipated how millions of wartime women would refuse to leave the American workplace and forever change the meaning of women’s work, or the perseverance of America’s Negro community, who would not be moved in their demands for full access to the founding ideals of their country. Most hidden of all, perhaps, was the knowledge that the black female mathematicians who walked into Langley in 1943 would find themselves at the intersections of all of those great transformations, their sharp minds and ambitions contributing to what America would consider one of its greatest victories.

In 1943, however, America existed in the urgent present. Responding to the needs of the here and now, Butler took the next step, making a note to add another item to his brother Sherwood’s seemingly endless requisition list: a metal bathroom sign, bearing the words “Colored Girls.”


Excerpted from Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. Copyright 2016 by Margot Lee Shetterly. With permission of the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins.

Meet the Writer

About Margot Lee Shetterly

Margot Lee Shetterly is an American nonfiction writer. Her first book, Hidden Figures, is being made into a film, also called Hidden Figures. She’s based in Charlottesville, VA.

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