Those responsible for teaching the young are one of the most responsible – if not always appreciated – jobs in any given society. Education is not merely a matter of knowledge: it is up to the teachers to communicate the base assumptions of their culture or challenge them if they think these assumptions are harmful to their wards’ prospects. Hidden Numbers is, first and foremost, the story of female black NACA computers, such as Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, but they had important and impactful lives even before being employed in Langley. While different in some respects, Vaughan and Jackson shared many similarities beyond their contribution to aeronautics: they came from teaching backgrounds, were active members of their communities, and worked hard to improve their students’ opportunities.
The first key similarity between Vaughan and Jackson was the fact that they were both mat teachers before getting their fateful jobs at NACA. Vaughan became a teacher after her 1929 graduation from Wilberforce University even though she had the opportunity to continue her education n Howard University (Shetterly ch. 3). Jackson’s employment history was similar: after graduating from Hampton Institute in 1942, she took a job offer in one of the black high schools of Maryland (Shetterly ch. 3). Back in the day, the position of a teacher was almost as high as a female black intellectual could have aspired to rise. The fact that Vaughan and Jackson alike held it tells much about their abilities as well as their propensity for intellectual work.
Another similarity between the two was their participation in the life of their communities and the general spirit of energy and activism. Vaughan never limited herself to her obligations as a teacher – on the contrary, she was both a member of the parent-teacher association and a founding board member of the NAACP’s Farmville chapter (Shetterly ch. 3). Jackson, too, has come from a long line of active community members, and she often went outside her job’s narrow duties to achieve the best possible results (Shetterly ch. 10). This determination to go above and beyond rather than merely complete what was formally required from them was one more common trait shared by Vaughan and Jackson.
Finally, both women had yet another similarity in how they approached their jobs as educators: Vaughan and Jackson alike sought to employ their students’ employment opportunities in the foreseeable future. For Vaughan, this was part of her duty as an NAACP member as well as a personal commitment (Shetterly ch. 3). Jackson demonstrated the same devotion to the long-term opportunities for her wards. For instance, she was firmly against singing “Pick a Bake of Cotton” at schools, as the song implicitly suggested that blacks were good for nothing but the simplest physical labor (Shetterly ch. 10). Although they could not change the predominant ideas of the white society, both Jackson and Vaughan felt obliged to defeat the self-limited notions that society had implanted in the minds of their colored wards.
As one can see, Hidden Figures demonstrates many similarities between Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson even beyond their contribution to American aeronautics. Both women came from teaching backgrounds – which is saying much considering this was almost the limit for a black woman’s intellectual career at the time. Moreover, both were active community members going above and beyond their immediate responsibilities. Finally, Vaughan and Jackson’s commitment to the long-term educational and employment prospects of their students was yet another shared trait between the two.
Shatterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. E-book, William Morrow and Company, 2016.