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Hidden Figures mathematician Katherine Johnson lays bare battle against racism

Katherine Johnson, the pioneering black mathematician whose contributions to America’s space program were immortalized in the film Hidden Figures, has chronicled her battle with racism and sexism in her new posthumous memoir.

Co-written by Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, two of Johnson’s three daughters, ‘My Remarkable Journey’ was published on May 18, a little over a year after her death. 

In the book, she recounted how she went from a child prodigy in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia to a NASA employee, detailing the struggles and fears she faced as a black woman. 

‘I remember at one point she said when she first walked into the office of NASA, there was a desk, and when she sat there, the man got up and walked out,’ Moore told the Today show.  ‘She said, “Oh, well, this is my desk. I’m going to work.” And when they started seeing that she had answers to the questions they needed, no problem.’

Story: Legendary mathematician Katherine Johnson wrote about her fight against racism in her posthumous memoir, ‘My Remarkable Journey,’ which was published on May 18

Hero: Johnson, who died in February 2020 at age 101, is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology at NASA

Hero: Johnson, who died in February 2020 at age 101, is remembered as a trailblazer who helped America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology at NASA

‘Mom’s fight was more, shall we say, intellectual in the sense that she wasn’t ready to go, “Fight, fight.” Instead it was like, “I’m going to outthink you,”‘ Hylick explained.

According to the book’s description, the mathematician’s story is centered around the basic tenets of her life — no one is better than you, education is paramount, and asking questions can break barriers.’

Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, near the Virginia border.

The small town had no schools for black children beyond the eighth grade, she told The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1997.

Family affair: Johnson's memoir was co-written by Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, two of her three daughters

Family affair: Johnson’s memoir was co-written by Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore, two of her three daughters

Each September, her father drove Johnson and her siblings to Institute, West Virginia, so they could attend high school on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College. She excelled in her studies, including math.  

‘The thing I loved about math, more than any other subject, was that there was a definite right or wrong answer,’ she wrote, according to the Washington Post. ‘I loved counting everything I saw, and I always pushed myself to go higher and higher.’

Johnson said she inherited her math skills from her father, Josh Coleman, who was a generation removed from slavery. While he only had a 6th-grade education, she recalled his talent for numbers and calculations.  

‘Daddy’s mind was quick with numbers,’ she explained. ‘He could add, subtract, and do complicated math problems in his head. He also could look at a tree and instinctively know how many logs he could get from it.’ 

She studied math at West Virginia State College and graduated with highest honors in 1937, according to NASA

In her memoir, Johnson paid homage to her mentor — African American math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor — who both encouraged her and prepared her to become a research mathematician. 

Claytor, the third black person in the country to receive a doctorate in math, created the course ‘Analytic Geometry of Space’ to help enrich Johnson’s studies.  

Looking back: Johnson was hired by NASA's precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953

Looking back: Johnson was hired by NASA’s precursor organization, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, in 1953 

Contributions: In 1969, she calculated the precise trajectories that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon before Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk

Contributions: In 1969, she calculated the precise trajectories that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon before Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk 

While she was one of the school’s top students, there were few job opportunities for her. She took a teaching position at an all-black elementary school in Virginia after graduation. 

Her mother warned her about the racism she would face in the state, saying: ‘Remember you’re going to Virginia.’ But she wasn’t deterred. ‘Well, tell them I’m coming!’ she replied, according to ScienceNews.

In another instance, she recalled how a white friend told her his pastor wouldn’t allow black guests at his wedding.  

‘I just shrugged it off,’ she wrote. ‘I was not going to allow his pastor’s backward views to change my opinion of the lovely couple.’

Johnson became one of three black students picked to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools in 1939. However, she left after the first session to start a family with her first husband, James Goble. 

She returned to teaching when her three daughters grew older. After Goble died in 1956, she married James A. Johnson in 1959.

Hyklick told the Today show that it could be ‘challenging’ having a mathematician mother and a father who was a science major, saying they never heard ‘math is hard.’ 

Incredible: Johnson (pictured in 1980) considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration

Incredible: Johnson (pictured in 1980) considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration

Success: She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986. Johnson is pictured receiving an award at NASA Langley Research Center in 1985

Success: She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986. Johnson is pictured receiving an award at NASA Langley Research Center in 1985

Recognition: Johnson had been a relatively unsung hero of America's Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Recognition: Johnson had been a relatively unsung hero of America’s Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom

‘It was always fun,’ Moore added. ‘As we went through math, it was just another subject that they expected us to do well because she said, ‘If you expect nothing, you get nothing.’   

Johnson’s life changed forever when a relative told her about the open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at NASA’s precursor organization, National Advisory Committee, where she was hired in 1953.   

She and other black women worked in a racially segregated unit at what is now called Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, until 1958, when NACA became NASA.

In a later chapter of her memoir, she detailed her concerns about allowing her daughters to participate in school integration. She recalled how the black students who were chosen to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957 faced a violent white mob. 

‘Once I’d seen what those Negro teenagers experienced in Little Rock, I couldn’t unsee it,’ she wrote. 

The trailblazer also discouraged her daughters from participating in civil rights protests out of fear they would get hurt or arrested, but they did so anyway.    

Johnson joined Project Mercury, the nation’s first human space program, in 1958 as one of the so-called ‘computers’ who calculated rocket trajectories and earth orbits by hand, using a pencil and slide rule. 

Immortalized: Johnson's story inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer (left to right)

Immortalized: Johnson’s story inspired the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures starring Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer (left to right)

Big role: Johnson was portrayed in Hidden Figures by Henson (center left in the film)

Big role: Johnson was portrayed in Hidden Figures by Henson (center left in the film)

‘Our office computed all the [rocket] trajectories,’ Johnson told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2012. ‘You tell me when and where you want it to come down, and I will tell you where and when and how to launch it.’

In 1961, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mission, the first to carry an American into space. A year later, she manually verified calculations by a nascent NASA computer for astronaut John Glenn’s groundbreaking orbital mission as the US beat the Soviet Union (USSR) in the Space Race.

‘Get the girl to check the numbers,’ a computer-skeptical Glenn had insisted in the days before the launch.

Seven years later, Johnson calculated the precise trajectories that allowed the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon in 1969 before the world watched Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk.

Johnson considered her work on the Apollo moon missions to be her greatest contribution to space exploration. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program before retiring in 1986.  

She spent her later years encouraging students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Looking back, she said she had little time to worry about being treated unequally.

‘My dad taught us: “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better,”‘ Johnson told NASA in 2008. ‘I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better. 

What a moment: Johnson is pictured on stage with the stars of Hidden Figures during the 89th Annual Academy Awards in 2017

What a moment: Johnson is pictured on stage with the stars of Hidden Figures during the 89th Annual Academy Awards in 2017

Achievements: NASA presented Johnson with an award honoring members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in December 2016

Achievements: NASA presented Johnson with an award honoring members of the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center in December 2016

Honor: Johnson is pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, in September 2017

Honor: Johnson is pictured at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia, in September 2017

She shared a similar sentiment in her book, writing: ‘I grew up and was told by law that I had to sit in the back of buses, climb to isolated theater balconies, and use colored water fountains and bathrooms, because of my race, but I chose to believe Daddy. I was just as good as anyone else, but no better.’

Johnson and her black colleagues had been relatively unsung heroes of America’s Space Race until 2015, when President Barack Obama awarded Johnson — then 97 — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The story of how Johnson and her co-workers Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson assisted in breaking the Earth’s atmosphere while fighting against sexism and racism during a time of segregation was told in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.

The film starring Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer’ and Taraji P. Henson — who portrayed Johnson — grossed more than $200 million and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

‘She said, “What’s all the fuss about? We were just doing our job,”‘ Hylick recalled.

Johnson was met with thunderous applause as she joined the actors on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony. Jackson and Vaughan had died in 2005 and 2008, respectively.  

‘If I’ve done anything in my life to deserve any of this, it is because I had great parents who taught me simple but powerful lessons that sustained me in the most challenging times,’ she wrote in her memoir. ‘I was always proud of my work, but for Pete’s sake, I didn’t do anything alone.’

Johnson passed away in February 2020, at the age of 101. 


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