Saluting Katherine Johnson

February 25, 2020.

Yesterday, we lost a great forerunner in the ongoing quest for equality and innovation. African American female mathematician and “Hidden Figure” Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said, “At NASA we will never forget her courage and leadership and the milestones we could not have reached without her. We will continue building on her legacy and work tirelessly to increase opportunities for everyone who has something to contribute toward the ongoing work of raising the bar of human potential.”

I will talk a bit more in March (Women’s History Month) about “stellar women” in science and technology. But I couldn’t help but reflect now on Katherine Johnson, who has been such an incredible pioneer at the intersection of black and women’s history. On a side note, this year marks an amazing set of milestones in both of these areas, which has often been the case and is highlighted by the current Black History Month theme, African Americans and the Vote. The peak of the women’s suffrage movement 100 years ago resulted in ultimate victory: the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, prohibiting the practice of denying US. citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex.  Fifty years before (in 1870, 150 years ago), the Fifteenth Amendment similarly removed race or color as a barrier to voting.

Personally, I can identify with Katherine Johnson’s experience blazing trails in fields where people who looked like me were either actively discouraged or completely prevented from participating. Just a few decades ago, helping NASA build and launch rockets was a dream that seemed either impossible or just out of reach for many groups that remain underrepresented even today.

Photo of Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center. Credit: NASA

What’s often left out of the story of Katherine and many others is that while being among the most apparent qualities, her race and gender are the least exceptional things about her. Long before her groundbreaking work calculating spacecraft trajectories and launch windows for Projects Mercury and Apollo as well as the Space Shuttle, Johnson enrolled in high school at only ten years of age. She was identified as gifted and talented when she was quite young, but public schools in the West Virginia county where she grew up did not offer education for black students past 8th grade. So she attended a high school on the campus of a historically black college, West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University). After being mentored by college professors and taking every available undergraduate math course while inspiring new ones, she graduated high school at 14. She continued her studies on the campus and graduated summa cum laude four years later with undergraduate degrees in mathematics and French. Then, she became among three black students, and the only female, to integrate West Virginia University’s graduate school after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1938.

Katherine was making history long before her work at NASA! What an extraordinary story despite immense obstacles, and it was just the beginning. At every step of her journey, Katherine was doing something that few or none like her (or perhaps not like her) had ever done– the epitome of exploration and invention. But it reminds me of something I’ve always noted: that women have had to be truly extraordinary just to get a seat at the table among regular men. A hundred years after Katherine was born, we still have a way to go but I am confident and optimistic regarding our progress as a society. Katherine’s bravery and uniqueness make her not just a hero for women and girls everywhere, but for all of us as people.

Like what you do, and then you will do your best. —Katherine Johnson

If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be. —Maya Angelou

About the Author:
Celeste Ford is Founder and Board Chair of Stellar Solutions.