As part of our Black History Month celebrations we will be highlighting contemporary and historic figures, hoping to share characters both familiar and lesser known. Alongside our featured stories, these profiles hope to reinforce the richness of BAME figures throughout history.
“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering, and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics.”
Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. She is an American mathematician who many of you will know from 2016’s Hidden Figures movie. As a young child she was deeply fascinated by numbers, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.” By the age of 10 she was a high school freshman, which was unique in an era where many African-American children stopped their studies at 8th Grade. When West Virginia decided to quietly integrate its graduate schools in 1939, West Virginia State’s president Dr. John W. Davis selected Katherine and two male students as the first black students to be offered spots at the state’s flagship school, West Virginia University. With the support of her loving family and an unmatched intellect, she graduated from high school at 14 and from college at 18.
Johnson took inspiration from her mother’s profession to also become a teacher. The job took her from West Virginia to Virginia. On her first day, on the commute to work, she had her first experience with racism. As she entered Virginia the bus drew to a stop and she and all her fellow black passengers were told to move to the back. They were later removed from the bus and had to use taxis while the white folks took their seats. Katherine recounts her mother informing her to be vigilant in preparing her for the inevitable racism, and she replied with her trademark confidence “Well tell them I’m coming!” However the challenges to race and gender would continue throughout her professional life.
After teaching Johnson decided to be a stay-at-home mother, until the early 50s when she began working for NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA. Women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the early 50s was rare, even after women of colour were allowed to work there during World War II. These women worked on precise calculations and were called ‘computers’. Johnson embellished the crude terminology penned to reduce her, and her fellow female counterparts, to administrative tools claiming they were ‘computers with skirts’. By a stroke of luck Johnson and a colleague where given the opportunity to work on a temporary assignment with an all male team. Through her determination and expert knowledge of analytic geometry she was able to win her male colleagues over, so much so that she remained in the team never having to return to ‘the pool’, as she called it.
Johnson worked for NACA (and in turn NASA) for 35 years where she worked on calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Her calculations helped with the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program. She also co-authored one of the first textbooks on space while while working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at the Langley Research Center.
For her pioneering work in the field of navigation problems, Johnson received the Group Achievement Award presented to NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operations team. She also earned an honorary Doctor of Laws, from SUNY Farmingdale in 1998, and was selected as the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 1999. In May 2006, Capitol College of Laurel Maryland awarded Katherine an honorary Doctor of Science. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
You can discover a little more about Katherine Johnson over at NASA.