Understand The Background Of Katherine Johnson Now
Long before Hidden Figures, long before Taraji P. Henson played her in the movies, long before her standing ovation at Sunday night’s 89th Academy Awards show, Katherine Johnson was already making history.
Born in West Virginia in 1918, the young Katherine Coleman showed great talent in mathematics. She loved to count — dishes she washed, stairs she climbed — anywhere, anything. At a time when African Americans rarely went past the 8th grade because public schools refused to offer them any more education, she graduated from high school at 14 and college at 18. Her family moved more than 120 miles from their home so that Katherine and her siblings could get an education.
She graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College, a historically black college, in mathematics and French, and became a public school teacher, like her mother. She was mentored throughout her studies by several African American pioneers in STEM, including Angie Turner King and W.W. Schiefflin Claytor.
Several years later, she was one of three African Americans, and the only woman, selected to integrate the West Virginia University graduate program. She left shortly thereafter to start a family.
But the story didn’t end there. In the early 1950s, she heard through a family member that NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was hiring mathematicians. Though she had established herself as an educator, Katherine still sought to pursue a career in mathematical research. When NACA’s facilities at Langley Field in Hampton, VA, hired her in 1953, that dream came true.
She was first assigned to a pool of women “human calculators,” or as Katherine herself described it, “computers who wore skirts.” They analyzed flight data and performed mathematical analyses. Then, she got called in to help a team of all-male researchers and her ability to use analytical geometry to solve problems so impressed them, she didn’t get sent back to the pool.
It took more than knowing about math to get recognized, however. The NACA facility was strictly segregated, both by race and by gender. Katherine knew she had to be assertive and aggressive just to be noticed for the work she did. Even after NACA became NASA and federal facilities were desegregated, women were not allowed to be authors on committee reports even if they did the bulk of the work. Or to attend editorial meetings. Katherine changed things on both accounts.
NASA quickly introduced digital computers to the space race, but relied on their human calculators to ensure the safety of the early astronauts. Katherine calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight as the first American in space on May 5, 1961. When it was John Glenn’s turn to orbit the Earth on the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, he didn’t want to trust his life to NASA’s occasionally wonky computers, so he specifically requested that Johnson check the calculations.
Katherine went on to a long career, retiring in 1986 after 33 years. She helped get the Apollo 11 to the Moon, and when the Apollo 13 mission went awry, she helped get the crew safely back to Earth.
President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the nation’s highest civilian award.
Though we single Johnson out for her extraordinary talent and perseverance, Hidden Figures shows us she wasn’t alone, as a woman or as a woman of color, as a pioneer in STEM fields. Women calculators were used by government agencies as far back as 1935, when they worked on wind tunnel experiments for NACA. African-American women were hired during WWII and kept on even when the men returned from war. In the film, Octavia Spencer portrayed Dorothy Vaughn, a mathematician and NASA’s first black manager, and Janelle Monáe played Mary Jackson, considered to be the first African American female aeronautical engineer.
Their stories must continue to be told if we want to ensure that the talented girls and young women of today don’t abandon their love of numbers and science and pushing the boundaries. Girls need to take it for granted that there are Katherine Johnsons, Mae Jemisons, Sally Rides, Margaret Hamiltons and Nancy Grace Romans out there as role models. They need to take it for granted that there are women and minority teachers and colleagues and mentors and yes, even rivals out there to challenge them to be the best.
Not all heroes wear capes. But heroes are people who get the job done. Women heroes who’ve been getting the job done for a long time. We need to make sure these heroes are visible to our children so they can follow in their considerable footprints.
To the delight of girls of all ages, Lego has announced its Women of NASA figures, featuring Johnson, Jemison, Ride, Hamilton and Roman, to be available later this year or in early 2018.
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