In Memory of a Great (West) Virginian

By Peter Galuszka

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a pioneering and brilliant African-American mathematician whose on-the-money calculations kept early astronauts alive, died Monday at the age 101. She spent most of her life in Hampton and worked for NASA there until she retired in 1986.

Her life and that of two other female African-American mathematicians from NASA, were portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures. Last year, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

Ms. Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va, where she was able to develop her talents despite the restrictions of the Jim Crow era. In the Mountain State at one point, public education was not provided to black people from high school on. So, her Father moved the family to the town of Institute where a high school was available. She graduated summa cum laude From West Virginia State, a historically black school, in 1937 when she was 18 with degrees in math and French.

For years she moved in and out of education, teaching at a school In Marion. Va. and continuing her studies. She moved permanently when her husband found work in Hampton.

By chance, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, now NASA, was opening a research center in Hampton and African-Americans were allowed to work there in professional capacities.

She was assigned to a pool of women who performed math calculations but due to rules instituted by President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian who was president during World War I, people of color working in the federal government confronted myriad and humiliating restrictions such as having to work together and use separate toilets and drinking fountains.

Ms. Johnson prevailed despite the slights. She demanded to be included in important conferences. She and her team were credited with calculating such precise trajectories that Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, landed close to pickup-ships. She also worked on John Glenn’s flight and helped map the landscape of the moon and provided an accurate trajectory for Apollo 11 and other moon flight. She watched the landing while attending a meeting in the Pocono Mountains.

According to her biographers, Ms. Brushed off racism by sticking to her work. She has been portrayed in a number of films and television series and is a promoter of STEM education for technology-minded students. The winner of many awards, Ms. Johnson was the subject of a  Barbie Doll likeness of her complete with NASA badges.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


5 responses to “In Memory of a Great (West) Virginian”

  1. Jane Twitmyer Avatar
    Jane Twitmyer

    Loved the movie about those women at NASA so early on … especially as I was hired by IBM as a systems engineer back in day when they were reaching out to hire women for their new smaller and more saleable machine … the 1401!

    She was an incredible woman!

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Thank you, Peter, for this post and reminder of a remarkable woman. What is most remarkable is that a lot of those early calculations were done by hand.

  3. Johnson was a great American. If she hadn’t been raised in a segregated era, she likely would have been a greater American. Her story, though, is classically American — triumphing over hardship.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “Her story, though, is classically American — triumphing over hardship.”

    How right Jim is. And now we are seeing the spread of an always very disturbing problem. That is the less challenges that life presents to individual Americans or groups of Americans early on in their lives, the more difficult those challenges become for many of the privileged to overcome. When life gets to easy, human beings tend to loss steam, lose self confidence, lose ambition, thus self destruct in ever more different ways.

    For example, what would have happened to the World 11’s greatest generation if the roaring 20s had continued uninterrupted by the great depression?

    I cannot be sure, of course. But based on my interviewing many W11 veterans over the years, I know that the depression had a powerful impact on how many veterans were raised, grew up, and saw the world, and how, and with what vigor and confidence, they addressed the challenges they were called on to win that war.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful tribute to a great American and a classy lady.

Leave a Reply