Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Duchess Harris Shares Grandmother's Story in Upcoming 'Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA'

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

Duchess Harris Shares Grandmother's Story in Upcoming 'Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA'

Article excerpt

"My grandmother was in the group of the first 11 black women recruited to work at NASA, and I've wanted to tell this story for 25 years," said Miriam "Duchess" Harris, a professor and chair of the American Studies Department at Macalester College over a recent breakfast at one of her favorite eateries, the Downtowner in St. Paul.

It's an important story, important enough to be included in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that opens Sept. 24, and now Harris and others are telling the tale of how women like Harris' grandmother and namesake, Miriam Mann, were recruited to work as engineers for still-segregated NASA in the 1940s. In December, the tale will receive the Hollywood treatment via "Hidden Figures," a Ted Melfi-directed and Janelle Monae- starring biopic of the pioneering women. But Harris' real-life version is compelling all on its own.

"My grandfather was a professor at [the private Hampton, Virginia,-based black university] Hampton University, so that's where my grandmother lived during World War II," said Harris, a married mother of three. "NASA had hired white women to be human computers, and there weren't enough to work on the project they were doing. So they went over to Hampton to see if there were enough black women who could do math, and my grandmother had a chemistry degree from Talladega College [in Alabama], even though she had been born in 1907.

"My grandmother died in '67, before we got to the moon. I was born in '69, the year it happened, and I was named after her. So I heard the stories my entire life, but I didn't really understand the significance of what she'd done until I went to college. I was influenced by the courage that she had to live out the daily practices that you need to have to be a career woman and a wife and mother and to hold together a black family and to be successful in the midst of racism and sexism."

Harris is likewise determined to not let her grandmother's story be relegated to white history's dustbin. …

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