The history of computing is not complete without the acknowledgement of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers like the African American women of NASA.
The film Hidden Figures about African American women mathematicians and engineers working for NASA in the early 1960s may be the first introduction to general audiences of the contributions to technology by persons of color. Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the 2016 book upon which it was based spent several years researching the topic.
Another 2016 book, Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Duchess Harris reveals the roles of black women mathematicians. Both projects grew from personal knowledge. Harris’s grandmother was among the first 11 women recruited by NASA, while Shetterly’s father was a scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Before these books, historians in the U.S. had not published much on the topic of race and computing, though many articles have expressed a profound need to do so. Venus Green's 2001 study of the telephone industry--Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880–1980—is one of the few works to address race and technology.
One reason given for the difficulty of writing this history is that archival records in institutions dedicated to computing lack materials that acknowledge people of color. Personal papers and corporate records have largely come from the computer establishment and thus tend to reflect those wielding most power in the industry.
Library holdings appear to lack published materials by and for persons of color. When I spoke with a historian at Stanford about Eno Essien’s 1992 book The Black Computer Survival Guide, he told me that he had no idea such materials existed.
Another historian told me simply, “I don’t think we know how to write about race.” His statement suggested that the history of computing, like computing itself, remains predominantly white. Historians of color may have found little to draw them to computing precisely because it has been presented as a historically white institution.
The failure of computing’s historical record to acknowledge persons of color has a very real impact. The lack of stories about the academic and professional accomplishments of historical figures helps to create and support popular narratives that claim an inherent lack of technological aptitude and interest among communities of color.
Cultural studies scholars including Anna Everett, Alondra Nelson, Ron Eglash, Mark Dery, and Lisa Nakamura have written about this negative rhetoric and its harmful effect on young people of color as well as the computer industry itself. Jane Margolis demonstrates how such narratives help institutionalize educational inequity in Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing (2010). More history is needed to provide evidence to refute misconceptions and reveal exemplars.
As a librarian and archivist it was my responsibility both to identify sources and promote awareness of them. I recently published two studies, including one in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, examining numerous computer professionals that had appeared in Ebony magazine. My second article analyzed computer training programs for underserved urban communities in the 1960s and 1970s that were described in journals for computer professionals.
In the first case, a journal for popular audiences by and for African Americans was found to value and publicize the successes of professional women and men. On the other hand, the professional journal often obscured the identities of communities of color with terms like “disadvantaged” and “underprivileged,” terms standing in stark contrast to today’s programs, like Oakland’s Hidden Genius Project.
Historians must change their methods and challenge the assumptions of the field to begin to understand how to write about race. The history of computing is not complete without the acknowledgement of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers like the African American women of NASA. I hope that as more of these stories are publicized the history field itself will be enhanced by their knowledge, experience, and values.
--R. Arvid Nelsen is a member of IEEE Computer Society and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarian for the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. His research can be found online here.