Hidden Human Computers

Dozens of African American women worked for NASA as expert mathematicians from the 1940s to the 1960s and almost no one knows about it. Segregated within NASA facilities in Hampton, Va., well-educated Black women used slide rules and pencils to do the calculations for flights by astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepherd.

Image: Melba Roy, NASA Mathematician, at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1964. Credit: NASA/Corbis

That this history is little known makes it ripe for research by collaborators Lucy Short ’15 (St. Louis) and American studies professor Duchess Harris, whose grandmother, Miriam Daniel Mann, was one of these extraordinary women.

Their collaboration began when Professor Harris invited Short, an American studies major, to join her in researching the human “computers,” as these women and their White women counterparts were known.

Professor Harris found this project compelling not solely because of her grandmother’s work, but because, “I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who became the first free Blacks in America. Because of them, I am here.”

They applied for and received a student-faculty research grant that supported travel to Hampton, home of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, now known as NASA’s Langley Research Center. There they met with local collaborator Margot Lee Shetterly (a Black descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and daughter of retired NASA engineer Robert B. Lee) as well as historians at the Hampton History Museum and at NASA. They also visited the archaeological site of the Great Contraband Camp, a community of freed Blacks.

In 1831, Virginia enacted anti-literacy legislation to prevent the education of slaves and freedmen. But in the 1860s, thanks to the efforts of educator Mary Smith Peake and sympathetic generals at nearby Fort Monroe, former slaves had their first opportunities to obtain an education, culminating in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), which became the alma mater of Booker T. Washington and scores of other Black educators and leaders. The Black women who became the computers at NASA were required to first take a course at Hampton.

“While we were touring NASA, Mary Gainer, the center’s historic preservation officer, pointed out a building used by the computers,” says Short.  Professor Harris asked, ‘Is that where my grandmother would have worked?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s where the White women worked. The Black women were in another building about a mile away, on the other side of the gate.’” These were women calculating the trajectories for America’s first manned space flights—segregated in a building with few amenities at a research center built on the site of the former Chesterville plantation.

The interconnections of the computers, the plantation, pioneering educational efforts, and a community of freedmen interested the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which provided a grant for Shetterly, Short, and Harris to expand their study. This grant was followed by a sustainability grant from Macalester, which allows further exploration of this unsustainable, segregated way of life.

Short is continuing the research as part of her senior honors project, which focuses on Black feminism. Another product of this work is a digital archive, Human Computers at NASA, developed in collaboration with the Macalester Library.

“The project has been a wonderful culmination of my American studies major,” says Short. “After being onsite at [the former] Chesterville Plantation, now part of NASA, the honors thesis chapter essentially wrote itself with the emergence of uncanny connections to slavery. I feel so lucky to have support from Macalester to pursue research on a microcosm of the invisibility of Black women’s bodies.”


N.O. lawyer transforms Whitney Plantation into powerful slavery museum


WALLACE — At Whitney Plantation, one of the antebellum estates that line the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the architectural centerpiece is a Creole-style main house where hand-painted ceilings are adorned with flowers and vines. Out front are a matching pair of pigeonniers and an alley of oak trees whose branches theatrically drag the ground.

It’s easy to imagine a typical moonlight-and-magnolias tour unfolding here, with guides in hoop skirts expounding on the antiques — except that Whitney’s owner, John Cummings, will have none of that.

“Who in the hell built this house?” Cummings thundered recently while ferrying a couple of visitors around Whitney’s 250 acres in a golf cart through the rain. “Who built this son of a bitch? We have to own our history.”

[Continue reading article at The New Orleans Advocate.]

This photo was taken with my iphone at about 3:04 AM on August 1st, 2014 at The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. 

My mom and I decided to stay there on our road trip after I saw the location on one of travel channel’s most haunted shows. Of course, we had to do some “ghost hunting”, and following superstition I proposed that we leave our room at “the witching hour” and take pictures of the property. 

We walked around for about 15 minutes snapping random pictures of different areas before returning to the room. We didn’t see anything and we didn’t feel eerie at all. I didn’t look at the pictures.

The next morning, we were sitting on the porch while waiting for the house tour when I decided to look through the pictures I had taken the day/night before. When I got to this photo I froze. The circled area is the exact place that the most famous picture of “Chloe”, the spirit rumored to haunt the land, was taken.

When I came across my picture I was startled, but also very skeptical. After showing my mom we attempted to debunk the photo. We first examined the area that the manifestation appeared in the photo. It looks almost catlike, but the bush in the photo is too sparse to suport anything but small birds and the railing below (seen in the second photo) is far too low to account for the height.

We then walked to the area where the picture was taken from to try and replicate the shot. We were unable to find anything that would account for the photo.

Of course I cannot say with certainty that there is a spirit in this picture, but I beleive that we may have captured something paranormal. 



Okay so this might be far fetched but someone posted the photo from the night the girls and Mona were in that house with the fire and this is a screenshot of the girl. I realized how dark the hair looked, and messed with the photo lighting. By brightening this photo 200% and lowering the contrast, I got the photo on the right, which looks a heck of a lot like Maya. Also can we discuss Maya’s website was never talked about again? And Maya went to Noels cabin for another unknown reason, there’s a lot we don’t know about her story line.