Hidden Figure Dorothy Vaughan didn’t hide from principle

Even before she became known to many through the newly released movie Hidden Figures, the few who knew Dorothy Vaughan well could attest to this:

Principle was everything.

As the first African-American female supervisor at NASA, the first to master NASA computer program FORTRAN and train an integrated class of engineers to use it, and one of the first black women to work at NASA as a mathematician, her principles would lead her to break through massive boundaries, not only for African-Americans, but American women across the nation.

“My mother was a Christian woman, a humble woman, a Godly woman,” said eldest daughter Ann Hammond.

“And she made very good desserts,” she added with a reminiscent smile.

All About Dorothy J. Vaughan from KG Brown on Vimeo.

Marking “The Golden Rule” as her mother’s greatest lesson, Hammond recalled Vaughan as a woman as generous in spiritual and moral principles as she was in academic fortitude.

“She was a wonderful mother,” she said. “She raised all six of us while she was working at NASA and still made sure we did homework, she was involved in the P.T.A. Everything that came along with being a good mother, she did.”

Still, principle is why Hammond can’t recount much about her mother’s actual job duties.

“It was classified,” she said simply. “My mother didn’t talk about it.”

Though she would overhear her speak of going to Wallops Island, the “what” and “why” of her visits there remain a mystery to Hammond and her siblings.

She probably could have shared it with them, her children, who surely would not have spoken of it outside of their homes or with others by request of their mother. But rules were rules, and following them a matter of principle.

Principle was everything.

It is on that same principle that Hammond stands as she applauds Hidden Figures as a story that greatly needed to be told.

“I think they did a good job,” she said of the 2016 release which has already earned award nominations from The Academy,  Golden Globe, and the Writers Guild of America, among others.

“It’s an important story, especially for us,” Hammond said.

“And not just us, for any girls who might not think she can go into mathematics, or anyone,” she added. “But it’s especially important that we have those role models in our communities.”

Ironically, it is that same principle that Hammond’s brother, Kenneth Vaughan, politely withholds his thumbs-up opinion of the film from wavering from a neutral position.

“They did ok,” he said. “But that movie is about one year, 1961. It doesn’t explain all that she did in the years before that.”

In truth, the women’s true value to NASA was somewhat glossed over. Despite having been at NASA for 18 years by 1961, there was little emphasis put on the importance Vaughan, in particular, had played up to that time, which would have ultimately been why she was trusted enough to determine who could handle that job. In fact, there had been times when Vaughan was the only mathematician trusted to do certain jobs.

That she was, thereafter, denied any further managerial promotion within NASA is also a forgotten fact in the hype that surrounds Hidden Figures’ release.

Arguably though, Hidden Figures was written to emphasize all three women’s contribution to a particular NASA endeavor. It isn’t a historical documentary, which is evident in the downplaying of Johnson’s age in the scene that includes her small children, who, in actuality, were much older at the time during which the movie is set.

But both Hammond and Kenneth Vaughan agree that there are small discrepancies about the portrayal of their mother that take away from the truth of her unwavering principle.

“My mother would never have said ‘gal’,” Hammond said in reference a scene in the movie in which Octavia Spencer, who plays Vaughan, says, ‘I’ve got just the ‘gal’ for that.’

“She never,” said Hammond with emphasis, “allowed us to use any words like that and she didn’t use them herself.”

Its origins in England, the word “gal” was an accentual pronunciation of “girl” attributed to the lower class. Later, in American, it would come to connote the same, but with the addition of the racially singed, ‘good ole’ boy’ condescension for which the South is infamous.

Even today, the word ‘gal’ used by the right person, with just the right twang can leave the unmistakable, metallic taste of Jim Crow shackles that are figuratively ever-present in the stereotypes of 2017.

For many, this is a minor mishap, something many might view as a matter of perspective.

But to Dorothy Vaughan, it mattered. The message it portrays of her, albeit subtle, is existent.

The line evokes the image of docility that plagues Hollywood injected representations of African-American leaders and scholars during the decades before, and in many Southern states, after, integration.

More plainly, it contradicted Dorothy Vaughan’s true character. Although seemingly simple, to even whisper it would have defied her principles.

“In the movie, there is [a supervisor] who calls her by her first name, and she calls her ‘Miss’,” said Hammond. “And the entire time watching it, I just wanted to reach out and shake something.”

Dorothy Vaughan was known for 99 things. But tongue holding wasn’t one.

“My mother would never have done that,” Hammond stated with certainty.

“She was a professional,” she said certainly. “She would have referred to her as ‘Mrs.’, but she was going to be respected.”

Perhaps a minor oversight by the writers. Perhaps a matter of creative control. But the portrayal is not one that represents Dorothy Vaughan.


The most important lesson in Hidden Figures may perhaps be one not unfamiliar to most:

The accurate portrayal of black history won’t be fully told by Hollywood or by media. Surely, each will provide fictional representations ‘based on a true story’, using creatively controlled devices through which the masses are provided miniscule amounts of true contribution by minorities in America.

In fact, if you’re looking for real historical accuracy, Hammond said the book, Hidden Figures, by author Margot Lee Shetterly, is a detailed and accurate read.

Narratives such as those of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson, will be, and have always been, up to the masses to truthfully tell, to pass down from generation to generation, to expose as they were rather than as entertaining anecdotes with truthful moments.

Passed down then are the lessons of old, the traditions of unity, the principles that led the downtrodden to rise.

Because principle is everything.

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