Black Women Who Slayed History: Katherine Johnson

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor Katherine Johnson. 

If is wasn’t for the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures, it would’ve been probably another 20 years before the entire world knew who Katherine Johnson was. It was her love and curiosity of numbers that led her to be a key player in American history.

Born 1918 in White Sulphur Spring, WV, Katherine was a mathematician, who by the age of 10 was a high school freshman on the campus of the historically black West Virginia State College. For any 10-year-old to attend high school is simply amazing, but it is even more astounding during a time where school normally stopped at eighth grade for African Americans who weren’t fortunate enough to experience school beyond that point.

READ ALSO: Black Women Who Slayed History: Angela Davis

By 18, Katherine enrolled in college and graduated with the highest honors in 1937. After she taught at a black public school, she was selected with two other male students as the first African Americans to take part in West Virginia University’s graduate program. After only one semester, she decided to leave to start a family with her husband.

It wasn’t until 1952 when Katherine got the word from one of her relatives that there were open positions at the all black West Area Computing section, which was led by Dorothy Vaughan, at NASA’s predecessor, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) Langley laboratory, which was located in Newport News. In the summer of 1953, she started work at Langley.

Before there were electronic computers, she and other women were known as the “computers.” She spent the next four years in a temporary position that soon became permanent, where she analyzed data from flight test in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division.  At NACA, Katherine was able to put her gifts of mathematics to use.

READ ALSO: Black Women Who Slayed History: Ida B. Wells

In 1962 she would do the work she would become most known for when she was called upon to calculate the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Astronauts back then weren’t that trustworthy of the electronic computers due to them being liable to untimely glitches and blackouts. As a result, John Glenn asked engineers to get Katherine, which comes to no surprise. Well, in his words “get the girl” so she could personally recheck the numbers done by the electronic computers by hand before his flight abroad Friendship 7.

“If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,” Katherine remembers him saying. Glenn’s flight was a success, and he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Katherine worked at NASA until her retirement in 1986. In 2015, she was honored by Barack Obama at the White House, where she received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Fun Fact: Katherine was born on the day known as Women’s Equality Day (August 26). Coincidence? I think not.

Seriously! Where was all this info back when I was in school. Maybe then, I wouldn’t had hated math as much as I do (or not).

And the best part of it all is that she’s still alive and well today! She is the definition of black excellence.

Because there’s so much to know about this incredible woman, click here to find out more.

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