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A Literal Hidden Figure

The movie Hidden Figures focused on the contributions of NASA mathematicians, engineers, and computer programmers who weren't recognized because they were black women. A literal example of the phrase was found in a photograph taken at the 1971 International Conference on Biology of Whales. The caption identified every person in the picture by name and title, except for one, whose face is partially obscured. She is also the only woman, and the only black person, in the photo. Candace Jean Andersen came across the photograph in her research and wondered who the woman is, and why she wasn't identified. She turned to social media, and clues began to come to light. A couple of men who were at the conference said she was Sheila Minor, who they thought was "support staff." The Smithsonian’s archive reference team unearthed a receipt for the hotel that conference members used for Sheila M. Jones (which was Minor's name at the time).    

The image proved that she was there at the conference. But when the archivists got their hands on Minor’s file this week, they were able to fill in more details to her story. Minor wasn’t there as an administrative assistant; she was a biological research technician with a B.S. in biology. This was her first job with the federal government in what would become a 35-year-long career at various federal bureaus.

She went on to earn an environmental science master’s degree at George Mason University, and collaborated with K-12 schools to improve science education. In the next two years she participated in a two-island study researching mammals of the Poplar Islands, and presented her findings at the American Society of Mammalogists Meeting in 1975.

Shapiro says the fact that Minor was initially dismissed as an administration assistant made the ultimate reveal all the sweeter. “There’s so much unconscious bias—maybe even conscious bias—because she happened to be a black woman in the photo,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got the biofile back from offsites I saw that, no, she was really a scientist and she did research of her own.”

Meanwhile, Andersen found Sheila Minor on Facebook, and she confirmed that it was her in the photograph. Read the story of how a hidden figure was found at Smithsonian. Also read about Sheila Minor's life today

(Image credit: G. Carleton Ray)

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