Additional recognition planned for Johnson

August 21, 2018


New honors are in the works for Katherine Johnson, the West Virginia native who became a trailblazing NASA mathematician as portrayed in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., along with 46 of his colleagues, introduced a bipartisan bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to Johnson, 99, and Dr. Christine Darden, 75, and to posthumously award Congressional Gold Medals to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson for their contributions to NASA’s success during the Space Race and highlight their broader impact on society.

Johnson, of White Sulphur Springs, graduated with degrees in mathematics and French at the age of just 18 from West Virginia State, before becoming the f irst African-American woman to attend graduate school at West Virginia University.

Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian.

“Not only did Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Dr. Christine Darden broaden our nation’s perceived physical limitations with their contributions to the space program, they also broke down discriminatory barriers that stood in the way of so many other women and persons of color advancing in the workplace,” Manchin said in a news release.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the U.S., and is awarded to those who have performed an achievement that has had an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized in the recipient’s field for years to come.

The Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act will honor:

• West Virginian Katherine Johnson, who calculated trajectories for multiple NASA space missions including the first human spaceflight by an American, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission. She also calculated trajectories for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission to orbit the earth. During her time at NASA, she became the first woman recognized as an author of a report from the Flight Research Division.

• Dorothy Vaughan, who led the West Area Computing unit for nine years, as the first African-American supervisor at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA. She later became an expert programmer in FORTRAN as a part of NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division. Vaughan graduated from high school in Morgantown, West Virginia, where her family moved when she was young.

• Mary Jackson, who petitioned the City of Hampton to allow her to take graduate-level courses in math and physics at night at the all-white Hampton High School in order to become an engineer at NASA. She was the first female African-American engineer at the agency. Later in her career, she worked to improve the prospects of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager.

• Dr. Christine Darden, who became an engineer at NASA 16 years after Mary Jackson. She worked to revolutionize aeronautic design, wrote over 50 articles on aeronautics design, and became the first African-American person of any gender to be promoted into the Senior Executive Service at Langley.

Meanwhile, a statue will be dedicated in Johnson’s honor on Saturday, Aug. 25, at West Virginia State University in Institute, West Virginia.

The work was created by a fellow Yellow Jacket alum, artist Frederick Hightower, a WVSU graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art and was commissioned to create the seven-foot-tall bronze statue that depicts Johnson during her time as a mathematician at NASA.

A native of Madison, West Virginia, Hightower has created numerous portraits and has sculpted many portrait busts and miniature statuary, but the statue of Johnson is his largest creation to date. One of the busts he created, that of Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Major General Charles Rogers, is on display at the Wilson University Union on WVSU’s campus.

The dedication and unveiling ceremony for the Katherine Johnson statue is 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, on the campus quad where the statue will be located. The event is free and open to the public.

In addition to the unveiling of the statue, an endowed scholarship honoring Johnson is being established by WVSU to build upon Johnson’s legacy as a pioneer in mathematics and benefit West Virginia students majoring in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) with emphasis on assisting talented individuals who are underrepresented in those fields.

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