Katherine Johnson

(Read time: 5 minutes)

I recently watched a movie titled Hidden Figures, which is based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The book was published in 2016 and takes place over a 30-year period beginning in the 1930s, covering the lives of four NASA employees: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden. These four dedicated female mathematicians faced severe discrimination because of their gender and race, yet used pencils and slide rules to calculate the maths required to successfully launch the first of many U.S. crewed spaceflights.

With this, I want to introduce a new section to PickUpACrayon called ‘Hidden Figures’. The idea behind it is quite simple – I would like it to be somewhere where people can read about individuals who are less well-known to the wider public but have made hugely significant contributions to the world.

Hopefully one day others will use this platform to share their own stories and experiences of people who have contributed to the world, but for now I wanted to start with this first post on Katherine Johnson. She was born on August 26th 1918 in West Virginia during a time when women were unable to vote and when racial discrimination was legal. Johnson showed a natural aptitude for studying early on; at the age of ten she was enrolled in high school and at just 18 she graduated with a degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College.

Courtesy of NASA

As an African American woman her upbringing was confronted with barriers, racism and segregation, all of which limited her options. During the period of legal segregation educational opportunities for African Americans were restricted to severely underfunded black colleges. Although Southern and border states claimed to offer all students the same graduate opportunities, black students were typically required to leave their state to reach their highest educational potential.

In 1938 the Supreme Court decreed that all states had an obligation to offer all students the same educational opportunities irrespective of their skin colour. West Virginia University (WVU) became the first tax-supported Southern and border state university to accept black students onto its graduate programmes. Indeed, the president of WVU personally selected the first three black students and Johnson was the first African American female to be admitted. Nevertheless, she could not eat in the canteen, participate in activities outside of study, or live on the university campus. 

In order to support her family Katherine Johnson left her studies in advanced mathematics before graduating; however, when she was 34 she heard that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA – later replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, i.e. NASA) was hiring African American women for a role as a “computer”. The role entailed working on complex mathematical problems and although her first application was rejected, she was successful in her second attempt.

Again, Johnson and other African American females experienced segregation – separate accommodation, separate restrooms and separate eating arrangements. However, Johnson was curious; she was tenacious, she was hard-working and she worked her way up the ivory tower, where she became the first female to attend meetings which were previously male only.

In 1961 her hand drawn calculations led to the first U.S. flight carrying Alan Shepard into space. A year later, when John Glenn became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth, he refused to enter the spacecraft until Johnson verified the calculations automatically generated by the IBM computer. Later in the decade in 1969 Johnson contributed to the mathematics required for the moon landings. President Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Medal of Freedom in 2015, saying:

“Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”

Johnson broke down stereotypes, she marched forward with determination, and she did not hesitate in the face of adversity. Johnson contributed to the advancement of the human race, yet until recently very few people knew her story.

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