June 5, 2023

Katherine Johnson, a black history-making NASA mathematician, died Monday, at the age of 101.

Katherine “Men Lie, Women Lie, Number’s Don’t” Johnson was the living embodiment of Black STEM and what black people can achieve in arenas they have been traditionally excluded from. A certified genius who made it possible for NASA’s space exploration to go where no human has gone before, Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson was a Human Computer, or as I like to call her, a Human Texas Instrument Calculator (If you had a TI in school, you could solve ALL the math problems).

Born in West Virginia 1918, Ms. Johnson’s intellect was noticed at an early age and it was nurtured and developed. She completed middle school by the age of 10 and finished college at 18, graduating from West Virginia State University, an Historically Black University, summa cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and French.

In 1952, after spending a number of years teaching in the state of Virginia, Ms. Johnson decided to pursue a career in research mathematics, although it was traditionally a very difficult field for black people or women (so especially black women) to enter. But do you think that stopped Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson? Fuck no. Katherine Johnson walked into her interview with the confidence of a middle aged, mediocre white male, and NASA (NACA at the time) hired her for their Guidance and Navigation Department.

Katherine Johnson would later go on to cement her illustrious career at NASA by delivering incredibly accurate calculations that would ensure the safe return of NASA astronauts on Apollo 11. This woman, this phenomenal black woman was instrumental in bringing home American astronauts, who were deemed heroes by their country, and yet she received no recognition from the same America that treated her and her ancestors like Fourth Class Citizens for generations.

Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson would eventually work for NASA until 1986. During her time there, she faced racial and gender discrimination. NACA disbanded the colored computing pool in 1958 when the agency was superseded by NASA, which adopted digital computers. Although the installation was desegregated, forms of discrimination were still pervasive. Johnson recalled that era as being highly problematic for women in the workplace. Johnson would later recall:

“We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston … but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, ‘Katherine should finish the report, she’s done most of the work anyway.’ So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something.”

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson http://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Johnson_Katherine.html

Even though Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson wouldn’t receive her flowers during her career, she would eventually receive the immense recognition she deserved as a black pioneer in this country. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama and in 2016, a new 40,000-square-foot building was named “Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility” and formally dedicated at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.  And oh, in 2016, Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson was also portrayed by world renowned actress Taraji P. Henson in a “lil” movie you probably never heard of entitled Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson’s contributions to black history and to black future was and will be immense. To succeed in a field where black people are traditionally shut out of does wonders for Black STEM. She is the perfect example that if this country actually took some of its resources to nurture curious minds like Johnson’s, America would produce an infinite number of black mathematicians, physicists and engineers who would contribute wonders to the betterment of black people, America, and this earth.

Black minds who naturally gravitate to STEM fields aren’t given the necessary tools to carry out such achievements because it is assumed, from an early age, that black minds don’t posses the capiacity to succeed in these fields. This has been proven to be wrong by actual data and by people like Katherine Johnson. STEM careers are the future, and Katherine Johnson showed us our future’s potential.

Katherine Johnson’s contributions are so massive, that it can’t be accurately measured. Not even by geniuses like Numbers Don’t Lie Johnson.

Leslie McLemore writes about a lot of different shit for Black With No Chaser. He is also the Takeaway Kang and is the father of two beautiful girls, one of which gets on every nerve he has. The other one is sweet. So, you know, balance. 

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