HAMPTON, Va. – A hometown hero wanted to put the spotlight on a group of black women whose roles in history were overlooked. She did that – and ended up receiving so much more.
On Wednesday, Hampton native and current Charlottesville resident Margot Lee Shetterly received the city’s Distinguished Citizen Medal for drawing national attention to an important chapter to its history in her book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.”
The nonfiction book tells the story of the black female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan – who helped launch Americans into orbit and land on the moon thanks to their calculations as “human computers” for Hampton’s NASA Langley Research Center. Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan did the math before the computer as we know it was invented, all while overcoming racism and sexism in the process.
“Hidden Figures” was adapted into the 2016 blockbuster film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and Kevin Costner; it grossed $236 million at the box office, earned three Oscar nominations and was named a top 10 film by the National Board of Review.
In addition to bringing this remarkable story to the masses, the Phoebus High School graduate and University of Virginia alumna also founded The Human Computer Project, which aims to recover the names and accomplishments of all the women who worked in the STEM fields at NACA and NASA from the 1930s until the 1980s.
The Distinguished Citizen Medal, established in 1964, is Hampton’s version of a key to the city and is awarded to people who “have been recognized with a state, national or international award that brings honor to the City of Hampton.” Shetterly is one of less than three dozen recipients.