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Black History Month

Don’t forget Dorothy Hoover, another hidden treasure once lost to black history

She was a pure math whiz who also helped bring NASA into the aeronautics age as shown in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’

It would have been so easy for Dorothy E. Hoover to have remained hidden.

When the 81-year-old woman died in a Maryland suburb just outside the nation’s capital 17 years ago, she was living alone. Neither her few acquaintances nor her neighbors had any idea whether she had any family. But to ensure Hoover received a proper burial, a few good folks managed to piece together an incomplete portrait of a life they barely knew.

Now, all these years later, the blockbuster book and movie Hidden Figures have filled in some of the remaining gaps.

Those few good folks who knew Hoover at the time of her death were stunned to learn she was one of the first African-American women hired to work as a human “computer” for the nation’s space program, just like the women in the movie. Even more, Hoover was a pioneer among those pioneers.

“Every time I think about it now I get chills,” said Jennifer West, of Bowie, Maryland, who went to check on Hoover one frigid February day in 2000, found her near death, and unexpectedly became her surrogate family. “I feel this beaming happiness. I think it’s because she’s released now … I knew deep down there was more to her story.”

A HIDDEN TREASURE

Hoover isn’t mentioned in the movie, which shot to No. 1 one at the box office with its January release and is now nominated for an Academy Award. But her accomplishments are highlighted in the New York Times No. 1 best-selling book, Hidden Figures, that first told the story last year. Author Margot Shetterly said that while researching NASA’s archives for her book, she uncovered clues that led her to Hoover.

The first clue was a 1951 report about the federal space program’s fair employment practices, particularly at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. The report pointed out that one of the women in the West Area Computing Group, the segregated unit where Hoover and the other African-American female mathematicians worked, had even attained a GS-9 on the federal government’s 15-tier pay scale — very rare for an African-American woman in government at the time.

“That is absolutely insane!” Shetterly said. “I wondered who that could be in 1950. It was like a total mystery.”

Shetterly soon identified that trailblazer as Hoover, who was hired at Langley in 1943 as a professional (P-1) mathematician. She then became the first of the West Area “computers” to leave her group and work directly with a white male scientist — a privilege that generally occurred only at the request of the scientist. By 1946, Hoover was doing calculations for Robert T. Jones, “one of the biggest deals in aeronautics history,” Shetterly said.

Hoover was promoted to shift supervisor, one of three in the West Computing Group, along with Dorothy Vaughan, whose struggle to become a supervisor is chronicled in the movie. By 1951, Hoover had earned the title of aeronautical research scientist and co-authored some technical reports, another thought to be impossible and hard-fought accomplishment.

Then, in 1952, at what seemed to be the pinnacle of her career, Hoover resigned from Langley and returned to Arkansas, her home state, to go back to school.

“Of all the women, she was a pure mathematician,” Shetterly said, surmising why Hoover left Langley. “She was just not into the engineering but really more into theoretical math.”

Hoover earned a master’s degree in physics from Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1954 and spent a year working on her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1955, before moving in 1956 to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. She stayed three years and then returned to the space program as a mathematician at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

There, she soared again, earning a promotion to a grade 13 mathematician in 1962, after Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson released a report on minority employment in the federal service. Even Mary Jackson (portrayed on the big screen by Janelle Monae), an engineer who stayed at Langley, hit the glass ceiling at GS-12.

Because Langley was the setting of her book, Shetterly said, there was no way to keep Hoover as a principal character in the narrative, which spans from the 1940s through the Apollo missions of the 1960s.

“But in terms of individual achievement and accomplishments, I was so struck by her and what she had done,” Shetterly said.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

Hoover ended her career at the federal Defense Communications Agency in 1968 after experiencing great personal tragedy. Her youngest child, a son, Ricardo Allen Hoover, whom she had with her second husband, died at just 17 years old in 1967. In 1969, her daughter, Viola Clementine Clarke, her child with her first husband, died at age 22. How Hoover’s children died could not be determined.

By then, Hoover had only sporadic contact with her few remaining family members in Arkansas. “I knew I had an aunt, and I knew what her name was, but there wasn’t much contact,” said Ozaree Twillie, Hoover’s niece, who now lives in Forest City, Arkansas.

Twillie recalled Hoover bringing a young Viola, at age 7 or 8, to visit the family once for several days in their hometown of Hope, Arkansas. Twillie’s mother, Hoover’s sister, had died when Twillie was just 3 weeks old. When Hoover’s parents and only brother also died, her aunt no longer felt connected to Arkansas, Twillie said.

The nieces, which included Twillie’s sister, Joanna Pickett, exchanged occasional letters and telephone calls with Hoover, but they rarely saw one another. Twillie said she didn’t know for years that her aunt had a son, and she learned about Viola Clarke’s death years later when she asked about her in a conversation.

Then one day in February 2000, she got a call out of the blue that her Aunt Dorothy was dead.

That call came from Jennifer West.

West had been summoned by her preschool teacher and mentor in Atlanta, 96-year-old Annie Lou Hendricks, in late January 2000 to go check on an old friend. Hendricks and Hoover had become friends around 1940, when both were graduate students in mathematics at Atlanta University.

Hendricks, now deceased, had even traveled to Maryland to stay with Hoover a few days in 1980. During that visit, West and her sister, Jean Lewis, hosted a luncheon for the two college friends. West recalled Hoover as a dainty, proper Southern lady, who addressed each of the women at the lunch as “Miss” or “Mrs.” and called the gathering a “repast.”

It was the only time that West would meet Hoover before receiving the call 20 years later from Hendricks, who was concerned that her friend didn’t sound well. West called Hoover and promised to visit soon.

“I had a family, and now I’m all by myself,” West recalled Hoover saying.

A snowstorm delayed West’s visit for about a week, and then she called around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2000, to let Hoover know she would be there within an hour. Hoover, suffering from congestive heart failure, sounded out of breath.

When West arrived and there was no answer at any of Hoover’s doors, she called 911. Within minutes, paramedics arrived, kicked in a side door and found Hoover collapsed on her kitchen floor. She died the next day.

Suddenly, it dawned on West that she knew nothing about this sweet lady. Even Hendricks, who had considered Hoover a good friend, didn’t know much more than that. And neither did Hoover’s closest neighbors, who had spent time in her home and helped to look out for her. Their responses were the same: Hoover was intensely private. She never talked about her family or her past. At the hospital, where she’d been treated repeatedly, she listed her church as the emergency contact.

Hospital officials told West that the body could stay there just three days. So, working against the clock, West called Hoover’s neighbors and her pastor, and all pieced together what they knew. Lewis (West’s sister) ultimately went to court and got an emergency appointment as Hoover’s special administrator so that the sisters could search Hoover’s home for information.

That’s when they encountered a scrapbook filled with photos and mementos of Hoover’s years as a mathematician. “It was like reading an interesting story,” West said.

Somewhere in the stacks of papers was Twillie’s name.

AN OVERDUE HONOR

A friend suggested West call The Washington Post, which led to a long feature story, titled Searching For Dorothy, published in May 2000.

Many years later, Shetterly would discover that story while following the clues to Hoover.

In January, after the tremendous success of her book and the impending release of the movie, Shetterly was invited to speak at the 2017 Joint Mathematics Conference, which drew 6,000 mathematicians from around the world to Atlanta. She made just one request: that the group honor Hoover in some way.

“I’ve always felt like even though there was no way to include her in the principal narrative of the book, I wanted to do something for her,” Shetterly said.

Ulrica Wilson, an African-American mathematician and professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, studied Hoover’s work and made a presentation on the complex math Hoover was doing decades ago. “Whenever she was invited into the room, she made a significant contribution,” Wilson said. “That theme resonates with me today … You’re still on the periphery, waiting to be invited in. You have to be ready. ”

For Shetterly, the moment of honor for Hoover was significant. “She got lost in history,” Shetterly said. “We got a chance to honor her and honor her as a mathematician. She was truly honored by her peers. I was just so excited.”

West learned about Hoover’s connection to the movie when a representative of the Joint Mathematics Conference reached out to her for information on Hoover. Both stunned and thrilled, West quickly spread the word to the small group of people who had become Hoover’s family in those hectic days 17 years ago.

“I’m still shocked,” said Warner Crayton, who was Hoover’s longtime neighbor. “I saw the movie, and I was in there thinking, Mrs. Hoover was even before you guys.”

Lewis, the one who became Hoover’s special administrator, said the entire experience has been such a life lesson for her: “If nothing else, it’s enough for people to know, do good in this life. Help other people. All we wanted to do was give her some dignity in her death.”

Lisa Frazier Page is a former Washington Post staff writer and the author of/collaborator on six books, including the New York Times bestseller, "The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream."