The figures behind “Hidden Figures” awarded congressional medals

JESSICA LEEDS RICHMAN, Arts & Life Editor Emeritus—The race to space dominated American culture in the 1960s.

In 2016, the Academy-Award nominated film, Hidden Figures, hit the big screen and increased awareness for the Black women whose contributions to NASA were critical in John Glenn’s successful orbit.

The film, based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three mathematicians and human “computers” as they work to make a difference for their country while fighting racism and sexism in the workplace. Together, these women “played an integral role in aircraft testing during World War II, supersonic flight research, sending the Voyager probes to explore the solar system and the United States landing the first man on the lunar surface.”

While the book and especially the film brought widespread recognition to these women, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, they received a more prestigious honor: congressional medals.

Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, along with engineer Dr. Christine Darden, were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, the highest civilian award in the United States. Vaughn and Jackson were awarded the medals posthumously.

A fifth medal was awarded in recognition of “served as computers, mathematicians, and engineers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration between the 1930s and the 1970s.”

This act is known as the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act and was signed into law by President Donald Trump. According to a press release issued by California Senator Kamala Harris’s office, “The bill commends these women for their contributions to NASA’s success and highlights their broader impact on society; paving the way for women, especially women of color, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”

The act has received statements of support from multiple organizations from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly commented, “Nothing could be more gratifying than to see these women—quiet heroes from my hometown—recognized for their service to our country. With their commitment to progress through science and an unyielding belief in equality, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dr. Christine Darden are role models to us all.”

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