Manifest Destiny – Summary

Chapter 5 of “Hidden Figures” describes Dorothy Vaughan’s first day at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. After completing the necessary paperwork and being sworn in as a Civil Service employee, she received her employee badge which granted her access to the laboratory’s facilities. Vaughan was assigned to work in the West Area, which was located on several large properties that were once colonial-era plantations. The laboratory’s expansion to the West Area had saved the town of Hampton from economic despair during Prohibition. The parcels of land were purchased by the city’s clerk of courts and sold to the federal government for the laboratory and flying field. This was a major event for the area and locals were pleased with the life-giving energy of federal money.


In 1939, construction of the West Area at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory began, which included the 16-Foot High-Speed Tunnel. The West Side was painted dark green in 1942 to camouflage the buildings against possible attacks by Axis forces. Dorothy Vaughan was dropped off at the Warehouse Building on the West Side, where she heard the sound of calculating machines as she entered. The only difference between this and other rooms at Langley was that the women operating the machines were black.



The West Area computing office at Langley was staffed by black women from various colleges and universities, including graduates of Hampton Institute’s Engineering for Women training class. They were part of a confederation of black colleges, alumni associations, civic organizations, and churches, and many belonged to Greek letter organizations like Delta Sigma Theta or Alpha Kappa Alpha. Despite the fact that in 1940 only 2% of all black women earned college degrees and none became engineers, the West Computers had found jobs and each other at Langley, the “single best and biggest aeronautical research complex in the world.” The section was led by Margery Hannah and her assistant Blanche Sponsler, both former East Area Computers. The work flowed down from Virginia Tucker, who ran Langley’s entire computing operation of over two hundred women.



The West Computers helped the NACA cope with labor shortages in executing time-sensitive drag cleanup and other tests for military aircraft. The NACA planned to double the size of Langley’s West Area in the next three years, but the agency struggled to keep up with the American aircraft industry’s production miracle. The NACA also opened two new laboratories, which siphoned off Langley employees. The agency became a many-layered bureaucracy flush with new faces as engineering groups grew in number and complexity. Air Scoop, the agency’s weekly dispatch, kept employees abreast of the constant activity and fostered morale. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox congratulated the NACA for leading all federal agencies in employee purchases of war bonds and praised the research that turned an unreliable prototype of a dive bomber into the SBD Dauntless, a decisive force in the navy’s June 1942 victory at the Battle of Midway.



During World War II, the employees at Langley Research Center were segregated. Knox acknowledged the contributions of all employees, saying that the war was being fought both in the laboratories and on the battlefields. In the cafeteria, however, the women of West Computing were relegated to a table in the back with a sign reading “COLORED COMPUTERS.” Even though the women were considered equals in the office, the sign and segregation in the cafeteria and bathrooms reminded them that they were still treated unequally. Eventually, Miriam Mann spoke out against the sign.



The chapter then discusses the wartime expansion of Langley Field, the US Air Force Base in Virginia, and its impact on the black community. The author examines the establishment of a US naval training school at Hampton Institute and the sale of the institute’s agricultural laboratory, Shellbanks Farm, to the federal government for use by Langley Field. The chapter also describes the racial tensions at the time and how the institute’s president, Malcolm MacLean, was considered “dangerous” for his calls to boost Negro participation in the war and his comfort with racial mixing in social situations. It discusses the background of some of the key figures involved in the hiring of black women mathematicians at Langley, including the head computer Margery Hannah and the brilliant engineer Robert “R. T.” Jones, who took an active interest in standing up to racial prejudice.



The “COLORED COMPUTERS” sign disappeared into Mirriam Mann’s purse, giving the women of West Computing a little more dignity and confidence that the laboratory might belong to them as well. War required endurance, and victory would require perseverance. The women at Langley felt that if they didn’t stand up to the pressure, they’d forfeit their opportunity, and maybe the opportunity for the women who would come after them. Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, and Kathryn Peddrew were becoming a band of sisters in and out of work. Dorothy was determined to make the most of this chance, for an ambitious young mathematical mind – or even one not so young – there wasn’t a better seat in the world.




Active Themes

Racism and Inequality:

The sign “COLORED COMPUTERS” was a symbol of segregation and discrimination in the workplace. The West Computers had to fight for their own table in the cafeteria, and the sign disappeared into Miriam Mann’s purse in a victory for dignity and confidence. The women of West Computing had to endure the pressure and discrimination at work to prove their worth and stand up for themselves.



The women of West Computing formed strong bonds and friendships that lasted throughout their lifetimes and extended to their children. Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, and Kathryn Peddrew became a band of sisters in and out of work, helping each other and transforming themselves as they helped to transform the workplace.



Luck, Persistent Action, and Hard Work:

The women of West Computing were fortunate to have the opportunity to work at Langley and pursue their passion for mathematics and science. They also had to work hard and take on high stakes to prove themselves and seize the opportunity. Despite the obstacles and discrimination, they persisted and endured to become successful in their field.



1. Are the women who become “girl computers” held to a higher standard? Or do they hold themselves to one? Why or why not?

The women who become “girl computers” are held to a higher standard, both by their colleagues and by themselves. Their work is constantly scrutinized for accuracy and efficiency, and any mistakes are quickly pointed out. This is evident when Dorothy Vaughan begins her work at Langley and is taken through the ropes of the job by Marge Hannah, who emphasizes the importance of accuracy, skill, dependability, and initiative. The women also hold themselves to a higher standard because they are acutely aware of the racial and gender barriers they must overcome to succeed. They know that their work is being closely watched and that any misstep could jeopardize their opportunity to work at Langley and pave the way for future generations of women and minorities.



2. Why does Miriam Mann keep removing the cafeteria sign? What does her act of defiance represent?

Miriam Mann keeps removing the cafeteria sign because it represents the inequality and segregation that she and her colleagues face every day. By removing the sign, she is asserting her right to be treated as an equal and demanding that the unseen hand, which represents the forces of segregation and discrimination, acknowledge her humanity and dignity. Her act of defiance represents a small victory for the women of West Computing, who have long endured the indignities of segregation and discrimination. It gives them a sense of empowerment and confidence that they can effect change and assert their rights.



3. In what ways is working at NACA progressive? In what ways does NACA stick to southern conventions?

Working at NACA is progressive in that it offers women and minorities an opportunity to work in a field that was previously closed off to them. It is a place where their talents and abilities are recognized and valued, and where they can contribute to scientific progress. However, NACA also sticks to southern conventions in that it operates in a highly segregated and discriminatory society. The women of West Computing are forced to use separate bathrooms and work in a separate building from their white colleagues. They are also paid less than their white male counterparts, even though they perform the same work. This inequality and discrimination is a reminder that progress in science does not always translate to progress in social and political equality.



4. How were Malcolm MacLean and Henry Reid helpful to and supportive of their new colleagues?

Malcolm MacLean and Henry Reid are helpful to and supportive of their new colleagues in several ways. They recognize the talent and potential of the women of West Computing and provide them with opportunities to showcase their abilities. For example, MacLean encourages Dorothy Vaughan to learn FORTRAN programming language, which opens up new avenues for her and her colleagues. Reid provides the women with the resources they need to do their work, such as pencils, paper, and access to the library. He also ensures that they are paid fairly for their work and are not discriminated against because of their race or gender. Their support and advocacy help to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace for everyone.




5. What is meant by the title of the chapter, ‘Manifest Destiny’?

Manifest Destiny was the belief that it was the destiny of the United States to expand its territory and influence throughout North America.  This chapter from ‘Hidden Figures’ describes the expansion of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory into the West Area, which was once colonial-era plantations. 




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