When Christine Darden was hired as a data analyst in 1967 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, her work as a “human computer” was largely limited to doing equations for male engineers. Rarely was her name included on the reports that she helped create.
Soon, though, she realized that the master’s degree in applied mathematics she held from Virginia State University qualified her to do the same work as her male superiors.
“So I started asking questions about that,” Darden said at a Richmond event Sunday hosted by the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
Eventually, she was able to ask a boss several levels above her: Why are NASA’s women, many of whom have the same backgrounds as male engineers, put in a computer office where they only do support work and never get promotions?
“The answer to me was, ‘Nobody ever asked that question before,’” Darden said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m asking it now.’”
Darden was soon transferred to the engineering section and went on to work at NASA for nearly 40 years, during which time she wrote more than 50 technical papers and articles and did groundbreaking work in the sonic boom program.
She was one of the black women highlighted in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book “Hidden Figures” as an aeronautical engineer who stood on the shoulders of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, all scientists at Langley who provided invaluable work to NASA with little recognition. “Hidden Figures” was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name.
Darden and Pearl Estelle Amy Smith were the subjects of a panel discussion at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday titled “Hidden No More: Pioneering Black Women Mathematicians Tell Their Stories.”
The event, moderated by Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, was held to recognize several films that highlight African-Americans in Virginia, according to Tasha Chambers, the Black History Museum’s executive director: “Loving,” “Birth of a Nation” and “Hidden Figures.”
“That was the purpose of this month, to lift up how African-Americans in Virginia really contribute to all of America’s successes and triumphs and victories,” Chambers said.
While the focus was on the experiences of Darden and Smith, the discussion also delved into the future of NASA, the importance of encouraging students to take STEM classes, and how to highlight those who have been largely ignored by history.
A native of Middlesex County, Smith was a mathematician at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in King George County. She was hired in the early 1960s and went on to become the section leader of her unit.
During her time there, she programmed weapon systems for missiles shot off ships and the guidance systems they required to hit their targets.
Asked at Sunday’s discussion whether segregation was an issue at Dahlgren, Smith said no.
“There were problems, but I didn’t have them,” she said to applause from the crowd.
Smith was the valedictorian of her 1948 high school class before receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and statistics from Virginia State, where she taught as well.
Darden was born in 1942 in Monroe, N.C. In addition to her master’s degree from VSU, she received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics education from Hampton University and her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from George Washington University.
Her mother taught first through fourth grades in a two-room school in North Carolina, and Darden accompanied her there when she was 3 years old. She worked in math books for fun but really fell in love with the subject when introduced to geometry.
When she went to Hampton University, she was behind many of the other students, so she taught herself subjects like trigonometry. But her father was adamant that she should major in something that would help her get a job.
“And of course, we didn’t know about the ‘hidden figures’ at NASA,” Darden said. “Most black females got jobs as teachers or nurses or in somebody’s house.”
So Darden pursued an education degree, taking four math courses as electives while student teaching.
When asked Sunday about the current push to get black students in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — classes, Darden said teachers are not given the flexibility they need to encourage students to learn and grasp difficult concepts.
“They have something called scripted teaching, and I could not imagine somebody telling me, when I’m teaching algebra to a class, at 10:15 I have to say, ‘And you move this to the opposite side of the equal sign,’” she said. “Where is my creativity as a teacher, when I can see a child is not understanding what I’m saying?”
She contended that, while some may be more gifted at math than others, practicing doing equations is a surefire way to improve skills, as is reading math textbooks, which she did when she had to teach herself.
Many of the best jobs available now are for those that require STEM degrees, she added, and companies are seeking candidates outside of the U.S. because there are not enough qualified candidates here.
“I say to students, ‘Are you telling me those kids in China and India are smarter than you all? Or are you telling me you’re just not willing to stay in there and take the right classes so that you can get those jobs? Our country needs you to do that,’” she said.
“They claim that they’re being inspired by the movie, that’s what everyone’s told me, and all the schools are showing that movie to the students. And we have to hope they’re getting the message.”
Darden and Smith attribute their careers as mathematicians to their educations when they were younger. Darden became enamored with geometry in 11th grade, and Smith loved math as early as elementary school.
During the question-and-answer session, one member of the audience asked how the hidden stories of African-Americans doing vital work in all fields might be illuminated in the way that the “Hidden Figures” book spotlighted Darden’s instrumental work at NASA.
Darden said writers, journalists and researchers need to tell the stories, just as Shetterly did for her.
“I don’t know all the stories,” Darden said, “but I’m sure those stories are out there.”