Trailblazers

Katherine Johnson: Lessons in the Life & Death of the African-American Trailblazer

Katherine Johnson: Lessons in the Life & Death of the African-American Trailblazer, Every Girl Africa

For Katherine G. Johnson, the sheer love for mathematics, along with positive self-assurance and a tenacity of purpose, led to a life of ground-breaking accomplishments. The African-American mathematician who worked for NASA from 1953 until 1986 was a human computer. In a time when minorities held very few jobs in mathematics and science, Katherine was a trailblazer.

Her calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 35-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.

Katherine was a legendary woman, a trailblazer, an American hero. She helped send the first Americans to space. She charted the first moon landing. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for a lifetime of achievements.

She lived an extremely exemplary life on earth.

Born in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia on August 26th, 1918, Katherine, for as long as she could remember, found herself drawn to the world of mathematics. “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,” remarked Katherine at the 2015 Medal of Honor Ceremony. 

True to her voracious appetite for learning, Johnson started out studying anything and everything at West Virgina State College — but this soon changed after a professor implored her to professionally pursue her mathematical gift. Upon receiving her degree in research mathematics, Johnson went on to teach, as this was the only option available to her at the time. 

In 1939, after marrying her first husband, James Goble, Johnson left her teaching job and enrolled in a graduate math program. She quit after one year upon becoming pregnant and choosing to focus on her family. She was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. Through WVSC’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, she became one of three African-American students, and the only woman, selected to integrate the graduate school after the 1938 United States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. 

The NASA mathematician, Katherine Johnson, who was immortalized by Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal in the Oscar – nominated film, “Hidden Figures” as one of the key participants who helped enable America’s 20th century space program, put in an application after hearing that NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was seeking black women mathematicians, in 1952. By 1953, she began her career in the all-black West Area Computing section of NACA’s Langley Research Center. Just two weeks in, her talent was recognized and she was reassigned to the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. “The women did what they were told to do,” she explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”

Katherine was a symbol of what women could be, what they could study, where they could thrive. No matter what they look like.

In a world that often tells girls — especially black girls — that they don’t belong in STEM, Katherine Johnson was exactly the Icon girls needed. In a world where black women make up just 13% of computer scientists, Katherine was a visible role model and a reminder that they needed more.

People doubted her because she was a woman, and because she was black. And yet, she persisted. In fact, she said that she didn’t have time to think of herself as anything but equal. She always saw herself as an equal and made sure that others treated her as such.

I’m as good as anybody, but no better.

kATHERINE johnson

Today, we honor and celebrate her brilliance, tenacity, bravery, 101 years of life on earth, and her legacy of breaking down barriers.

May you find her story as motivating as many of us have. 

We’ll course on today, with her in mind, motivated by her life, her bravery, and her legacy. And we’ll be ever grateful for the lessons learned.

Rest well, Katherine Johnson.

“Her love of mathematics took her well beyond her small world; some could say it even took her from Earth all the way to the stars. She was a trailblazer, forging a path that would allow many others to follow in her steps.” – NASA Press release.

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  • […] Katherine Johnson was a hero, a NASA Mathematician and trailblazer who amongst her greatest achievements, was her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space). Her exceptional skill and hard work was how she got “lucky” to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then President, Barack Obama. […]

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