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Behind Hidden Figures: Author retells the story behind the movie

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A photograph of Duchess Harris' family from the 1950s. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)2 / 5
Macalester College Professor and author Duchess Harris poses for a photograph Feb. 11, 2017, in Woodbury. The Dorothy Ann Bakery in Woodbury printed the image of her book, “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA,” on the cake. (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)3 / 5
About 40 people attended a private lecture in Woodbury, which featured author Duchess Harris, who spoke about her book that heavily inspired the movie "Hidden Figures." (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)4 / 5
Ruth Simelton Jones, left, and Linda Hood, right, presented Duchess Harris flowers before giving a lecture on Harris' book "Hidden Human Computers." (Bulletin photo by Youssef Rddad)5 / 5

Miriam "Duchess" Harris' grandmother was one of 11 black women who made important contributions to NASA. Unknown by many until recently, the women performed complex calculations that made it possible for astronauts to fly into space and return to Earth safely.

Their stories are told in the recently released film "Hidden Figures," which details the obstacles these women faced in the midst of the civil rights movement.

Before the movie's release, Harris, a Twin Cities author and American Studies Department chair at Macalester College, has been telling the story behind the movie through her book, "Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA."

On Saturday, Harris gave a presentation on the research involved in writing her book during a private event in Woodbury. The lecture raised more than $1,000 to benefit the Arc Greater Twin Cities, a local nonprofit that supports people with developmental disorders.

Some of those in attendance drew upon themes presented through the book and film, reflecting on how someone in their family was the first to breach the barriers of their time.

"I think we all have our own hidden figures in our lives," said Linda Hood, who hosted the lecture at her home in Woodbury.

In 1943, Harris' grandmother, Meriam Mann, was among the first group of black women to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) before it became NASA in the late 1950s.

They were called computers and were tasked with checking engineers' calculations before the advent of the first IBM computers.

Unlike the movie, which is set in 1961, the agency began recruiting educated black women during World War II because of labor shortages. The military drafted men to fight in the war, and there weren't enough educated white women to fill jobs at NACA, Harris said.

"A lot of people might like to think it's because they were in favor of civil rights, and they wanted to help black people," she said. "That's not true."

The women worked at a facility similar to that of the Mayo Clinic, with miles of sprawling buildings. The majority of engineers and employees didn't know black people worked there, Harris said.

Harris' grandmother died in 1967, and it wasn't until her sophomore year in college that she became curious about her grandmother's past.

Though she's wanted to tell her grandmother's story for several years, it wasn't until 2014 that she was able to focus on her research while on a sabbatical.

She partnered with Margot Lee Shetterly, a nonfiction writer and journalist, whose father worked at NASA in the '70s. "I needed her because she had NASA clearance through her dad's connections," Harris said. "Getting on that campus and getting into that archive is no small feat."

In the early stages of their research, they uncovered documents showing NASA's research center was built on top of a former plantation site in Hampton, Va.

Harris said she wanted to explore how the relatives of former slaves may have returned to work at the center years later. "That was the narrative I wanted to tell," she said.

Her book also focuses on how NASA tapped into the educational pool of historically black colleges while referencing prior eras when literacy was illegal for black people.

Shetterly went on to publish her book, "Hidden Figures," in fall 2016. The book was adapted for the film and caters more to general audiences. Harris' book, however, focuses more on placing the women's stories into historical context so it could be taught in classrooms.

In the near future, Harris said she'd like to explore the differences between women working for NASA and other working-class black women. That's just one of the several angles she hopes to explore through a possible documentary.

"There's just so many layers of this story yet to be told," she said. "Even though I really loved the movie, I'd love to see the texture of the women's lives."

The Saturday event raised $1,181 for the Arc Greater Twin Cities through book sales, attendance and album sales by Twin Cities artist Tiffany Trawick.

Harris will be presenting again at the University of Minnesota Feb. 16. Shetterly will also be presenting at the University Feb. 21.