INSTITUTE, W.Va. — Since her childhood in a segregated White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Johnson has spent a lot of time counting.
When she was younger, Johnson numbered everything from the steps it took her to walk to church or around her house to the dishes in her cabinet. In the 1960s, she used her knowledge of numbers to help pioneer space expeditions that helped shape America.
On Sunday, she will count her 100th birthday. Just a day before, she sat with hundreds of friends, family members and fans at West Virginia State University in Institute to celebrate with the unveiling of a statue and a scholarship dedicated in her honor.
“What makes Katherine so extraordinary is she not only prevailed while segregation failed, Dr. Johnson has continued to persevere and thrive with the gracious poise and clarity that defies mere words of explanation, let alone definition,” said Dr. Yvonne Cagle, keynote speaker at the ceremony and the space and life sciences directorate at the Johnson Space Center. “So what can you say after a century about someone like Dr. Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson — our very own global, global genius? Let’s see — you say nothing. You don’t say anything. You listen.”
Johnson began attending WVSU at the age of 14 when — as a black woman — she was unable to pursue further education in Greenbrier County. At 18, she graduated from WVSU with degrees in both mathematics and French. She spent some time pursuing graduate studies at West Virginia University as one of the first black students to attend the school. Despite excelling at her craft
and proving herself time and time again, she knew starting a career as a research mathematician after college would be difficult.
For 15 years Johnson worked as a teacher, inspiring other young Appalachians in the fields of math and science. In 1953, just as the U.S. civil rights movement was taking off, Johnson joined the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics — which later became NASA — as one of a handful of black women hired to do mathematical work.
In 1961, her calculations put the first American in space. In 1962, she was responsible for helping astronaut John Glenn orbit the Earth three times. Years later, those calculations put Americans on the moon.
In 2015, then-President Barack Obama awarded Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor.
Her story and legacy was shared with the world in 2016 when the Academy Award-nominated film “Hidden Figures” hit theaters.
Now, Johnson has once again been immortalized with a bronze statue standing in the middle of WVSU’s campus, and through a scholarship fund in her name, other young students looking to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics will be able to access more opportunities to help them prevail as she did.
With an initial endowment of $200,000, the Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson scholarship is already helping students like freshmen Jasiaha Daniels, a Charleston native and Capital High School graduate, and Alexis Scudero, a Gandeeville, West Virginia, native and graduate of Roane County High School.
Daniels, who is studying biology, said she was shocked when she learned she was chosen to receive the scholarship.
“I really couldn’t believe it, and I was honored, especially to have something in her name,” Daniels said. “She’s inspiring, and especially because she’s African-American, I can identify with her. That feels amazing.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., also made an appearance at Saturday’s event, honoring Johnson by entering her accomplishments into the congressional record “for eternity.”
“It is my hope that the students who pass by (this statue) every day will be reminded of Katherine’s legacy and will be inspired to keep their passion for knowledge alive. Every one of our female leaders in West Virginia are an epitome of strength ... and advancements in their fields. They serve as inspiring role models for the next generation, and that is due in great part to the women who broke ground in generations past,” Manchin said. “Because of the accomplishments of intellectual leaders such as Katherine, more young women have and will blaze their own trails in the fields of science, math, engineering and tech, and will continue to make our state and our entire nation proud.”
Seventy-five of Johnson’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren came to Institute from all over the country to see her statue unveiled.
“I hope this statue does what we would like it to do, and that’s inspire students for years to come,” said Joylette Hylick, Johnson’s daughter.
Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.