During Black History Month, we honor African Americans who made significant contributions to American society and impacted the course of American history. One such figure is Robert Smalls, who was born a slave in South Carolina, made a dramatic escape from slavery, and was later elected to Congress. With primary sources, Smalls’ remarkable life, achievements, and impact can be considered and understood through contemporary accounts.
By Debra Kirby
Sometimes it takes a critically acclaimed movie to shine a light on extraordinary achievements. This has proved to be especially true when the subjects of those achievements are women or members of minorities. The movie Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same name, has recently generated interest in three African American women who played important roles in the U.S. Apollo Space Program. As is often the case, once you start digging into the details around historic events or people, you discover many related interesting facts and stories. When your sources include Gale databases you can spend hours exploring and learning.
Here are some of the facts I found when I began my journey to learn more about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—the fascinating women whose stories are told in Hidden Figures.
- Katherine Johnson began her career as a “human computer” at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), NASA’s predecessor. Before the age of electronic computers, NACA employed hundreds of women mathematicians as human computers. Men with similar qualifications were classified as professionals; women were sub-professionals. Black mathematicians were segregated in their own office and loaned out to various divisions as needed. (Read more about Johnson in Biography In Context.)