Shining a light on a Hidden Figure – Dr. Cynthia Bowman Vernón
By Carla Vernón
The way we honor Black History Month makes many of those milestones seem like they happened million years ago. It is common to portray the historic breakthroughs by Black leaders as if the history maker and the history survive only as cracking black and white photographs and books yellowing at the edges. As we focus our celebration to static images of the past, we often miss what is living vibrantly among us, even right here in Edina.
That inability to notice the brilliance waking in our midst, is why title of the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is such an apt description for a Black History Maker living and thriving in Edina today. The phrase “Hidden Figures” had a two-fold meaning in that story. It referred to the “hidden in plain sight” circumstances of NASA’s black female mathematicians and computer scientists of the 1950s andn60s. Those women, then called “computers” because they performed calculations and computations before calculators were in common use, went unnoticed and unrecognized in their industry and the history books. The title also serves a second meaning in the book, cleverly describing the prodigious capabilities of those black women to see mathematical and computing solutions that evaded teams of white male NASA employees.
Here in Edina, the phrase Hidden Figure takes on a third meaning. The history of my own mother, Dr. Cynthia Bowman Vernón, an Edina resident who once worked as the lone Black woman at a NASA facility in the racially segregated 1960s was hidden history. Her role at NASA was unknown to me and my family until one wintery day in 2017.
My mom and I have always been close to my mom. She even lives with us in Edina today. But, in our 50 years together, she never told me that her first job out of college was at a NASA facility in Slidell, Louisiana. I had always known my mother to be very proud of her career as a public school math and science teacher and later, as a microbiology and virology researcher as she pursued her PhD in her middle years.
When my mom moved in with us in 2015, my children were 8 and 10 years old. And, it was very common for my husband and I to find family-friendly movies that the five of us could go watch together. So, one January weekend in 2017 we went to the discount movie theater in Golden Valley to watch the movie “Hidden Figures” together. And, as the end credits began to roll, my mother leaned over to her grandchildren and softly said “You know, your grandmother had a job very similar to the ladies in the movie.” Stunned and barely able to gather my thoughts, I said “Mom, why don’t you tell the children what you mean?” (knowing perfectly well, I had no idea what she meant. This was my first time hearing this news). Later that evening, I managed to pry the full hidden history from her.
1963, after graduating with undergraduate degrees in Mathematics, Physics and Education from Xavier University (a historically black university in Louisiana) she worked in Chrysler's Space Division of NASA as a Programming Assistant for the IBM Mainframe Machine and checking the math of the Chrysler engineers.
She got the degree in Education because she didn't feel that it was likely that a Black woman could have a viable career in the Space industry. As many of you know, today, she is a PhD Microbiologist and twice retired math and science teacher. She is and always has been my hero. Now, thankfully, her history is no longer hidden