For nonfiction author Margot Lee Shetterly, history can sometimes seem dead and unchanging, buried in texts books.
So hearing that Utah elementary students campaigned to rename their school after Mary W. Jackson, a subject of Shetterly’s work, came as evidence to her that the past is still alive and well.
Jackson was a relative unknown until Shetterly published her book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” The book, which tells the true story of four women overcoming racial barriers and gender bias while working at NASA, was adapted into a feature film in 2016.
Students, parents and administrators from the newly christened Mary W. Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City met Shetterly and former chief NASA scientist Ellen Stofan on Friday at a breakfast on the University of Utah campus.
Shetterly told them the school’s name change touched her deeply.
“Our understanding of the past and the contributions of people, and what that means for our country, is always changing,” the author said. “We have to change with it. I am really honored and very moved to be here with this wonderful Mary Winston Jackson Elementary School.”
Formerly Andrew Jackson Elementary, the school at 750 W. 200 North changed names in February in a move met with applause and contention. The seventh president, admired by some as a populist and a military hero, has increasingly become a polarizing historical figure for owning slaves and organizing the deadly Trail of Tears relocation of American Indians in the 1830s.
The school community considered more than 40 suggestions for alternative names. In the end, sixth-grader Olivia Egbert said it came down to choice between a generic name that “meant nothing” and Mary Jackson.
“It really suits the school better for our diversity,” the 12-year-old said Friday. “The old name didn’t suit us at all.”
Jackson Elementary Principal Jana Edward said she was tickled her students were able to meet Shetterly and Stofan, both of whom now hold a special connection to school.
“I didn’t think my babies would get to feel so special,” Edward said. “I’m so happy.”
Stofan, who specialized in the geology of various celestial bodies while at NASA, said Friday she remembered family stories about the “Hidden Figures.”
Her father, who also worked for NASA, often talked at home about bringing equations to the women who worked as human computers for the agency during the space race.
Years later, Stofan said when she learned the full story of the women, she felt inspired by their work — but also angry at the lack of credit they received for their work. Humans would not have succeeded in reaching outer space were it not for their work, she said.
“When you think about getting to Mars, it’s really important to say ‘Are we making sure we’re bringing everyone along with us?’ ” Stofan said. “If we don’t, we are leaving talent behind that we need to accomplish great things.”
Turning to the Mary W. Jackson Elementary students, she added, “I want to see these girls walk on Mars some day.”
Reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.