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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Katherine Johnson: The Woman who Evolved at NASA

Black History Month continues to be educational and motivational. It's amazing what I found throughout social media feeds. I recently came across another accolade of Black American history. This time it revolves around a mathematician and her work with NASA.

(Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson)

* The following was spotted on Facebook and edited for clarity

A White man may have been the first to walk on the moon but, Katherine Johnson, a Black mathematician, got him there. 

A math genius, Johnson entered West Virginia State University, a Historically Black College, at the age 15. While there, professors at the campus competed to have the Johnson in their classes. 

Dr. William W. Schiefflin Claytor, who earned his Bachelors and Masters in Mathematics at Howard University, told the Johnson that she would make a great research mathematician, and set about teaching her all that he knew. 

Johnson took every math class the university offered, and her young professor and mentor even created an analytic geometry class specifically for her, which she took alone.

It all paid off. She arrived at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, after the organization had begun looking for women to work as "computers." At this time, electronic computing was still in its early stages and human minds were still called on to verify the accuracy of the computations. (See video below)

Given that this was still a time of segregation, Johnson worked in the division that was made up entirely of Black woman mathematicians whose supervisor was also a Black woman. Unlike their White counterparts, they all had college degrees. It was common for the women to do the computations while the men worked on the engineering side, learned about the space program and went to special briefings. 

Johnson wanted to know what was happening with the burgeoning space program and asked to attend one of the briefings. She was told that women did not go, but inquired whether this was based on a law. It was not, and so she was given permission to go. 

Because of her insightful questioning and accurate work, Johnson stood out in briefings. While she conducted research for the program, the organization came to rely upon her mathematical authority. 

When it was time for the first flight into space to happen, it was her computations that made it possible. She did all this while balancing out being a young wife and a mother. 

Johnson was simply doing the work that intrigued and motivated her. At the age of 96, she remains as an inspiration to many.

Do you a story to share about an influential person who paved the way for Black Americans? E-mail your submission to or leave your views in the comment box below.

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