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Duchess Harris writes about grandmother, pioneering NASA mathematician


By Harry Colbert, Jr., Managing Editor

The story of the 11 Black female mathematicians who made American’s space exploration and moon landing possible is a personal one for a Macalester College professor.

In fact, had it not been for Dr. Duchess Harris’ curiosity about her grandmother, Miriam Mann – a curiosity that began in college – the soon-to-be-released film, “Hidden Figures” might never have been made. “Hidden Figures” tells the story of how 11 African-American mathematicians were recruited by NASA to work for the agency in its quest to put a man on the moon. 

Duchess Harris

Duchess Harris

“I didn’t really appreciate the significance of her (Mann’s) work until I was in college at the University of Pennsylvania and I was a double major in history and African-American studies. It wasn’t until then that I started to really understand what she did,” said Harris, who is a professor and department chair of American Studies at Macalester in St. Paul.

Harris became fascinated with the work her grandmother did, finding articles that dated back to 1943 – the year Mann started working for NASA. Underscoring Mann’s accomplishment is the fact that the land NASA sat on was a former slave plantation and it remained a plantation until 1950 – seven years after Mann and the 10 other African-American women working there started for NASA.

“All the men were being drafted to war (during World War II) and NASA turned to white women with backgrounds in mathematics and there weren’t enough of them, so it decided to look for African-American women and came to Hampton University (Va.) where my grandmother was. My grandfather was a professor there. (Mann) had degree in chemistry from Talladega (College in Alabama),” said Harris. “That’s how she became one of the first 11.”

Continuing her research, Harris, along with Margot Lee Sheerly received a grant based on a joint proposal to further explore the work of the pioneering NASA mathematicians. Sheerly went on to author the book, “Hidden Figures” that has been adapted for the big screen and will hit theaters nationwide on Christmas Day. Harris has also authored a book on the subject. “Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA” is available on and as of Dec. 15.

“Margot is a journalist so she approached it as wanting to tell the story to the public. I’m an academic, so I wanted to write a teaching tool, so my book is for sixth through 12th graders,” said Harris. “I wanted to do something that showed that African-Americans have a place and role in STEM.”

Harris’ work is featured in an upcoming BBC documentary and she has been invited by the Virginia Legislature to present her book on before the body on Feb. 1.

Although Harris is known in academic and literary circles (she has written three prior books) as Duchess Harris, her birth name is Miriam – named after her pioneering grandmother, who she never got to meet.

“She (Mann) died in 1967 and I was born in 1969 – the year Apollo 11 landed on the moon,” said Harris, who said that landing would not have been possible if it weren’t for the work of her grandmother and the other 10 Black mathematicians at NASA.

Harris said one of her great joys is knowing her mother will get to see the film based on Mann’s life.

“My mother used to tell people that her mother worked for NASA and nobody believed her,” said Harris.

There will be a launch event for Harris’ book at the Science Museum of Minnesota, 120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, on Jan. 14 from 10 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.



December 16, 2016
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