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‘Human Computer’: Who Is Katherine Johnson From ‘Hidden Figures’?

Despite segregation, racism, and misogyny, Katherine G. Johnson blazed a trail for scientists at NASA.

Katherine Johnson (center), Caroline Waterlow (left) and Ezra Edelman (right) at the 89th Annual Academy Awards on February 26, 2017 (Tyler Golden/Getty Images)

For a girl who loved to count everything, you might expect Katherine G. Johnson to be grateful that she was alive to count her 99th year. It’s not every day that a civilian gets honored by NASA, as Johnson was last month as the space agency opened the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, Virginia.

But you would be wrong. When asked pointedly about the distinction bestowed upon her for playing such a pivotal role in the American space program, the nonagenarian didn’t know what to make of the hoopla.

“You want my honest answer?” Johnson said. “I think they’re crazy [to name it after me].”

But although Johnson might be at a loss, the rest of the world better understands the role she played in history as a “human computer” after her life was chronicled in last year’s Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures — itself based on the book by the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly.

“We are living in a present that they willed into existence with their pencils, their slide rules, their mechanical calculating machines — and, of course, their brilliant minds,” said Shetterly at the ribbon cutting ceremony.

“At every fork, her talent, her hard work and her character pulled her toward her destiny. At every turn, she made a choice to become the protagonist in her own story and then of ours.”

Humble beginnings in Virginia

Hers is a story of brilliance, but it’s also a story of perseverance and resolve, of creativity and intuition, of strength and honesty.

Every obstacle imaginable littered the road before her. Segregation. A school system that offered few resources for black learners. Racism. Misogyny. Life as a single mother.

Yet Johnson overcame every challenge, with grace and equanimity.

Like so many extraordinary lives, it began humbly. Katherine Coleman was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. From her earliest years, Johnson remembers loving numbers, so she never stopped counting — steps to school, footfalls to church, or drops falling from a leaky roof during spring rains.

The young prodigy couldn’t be contained even by the era’s bigoted constraints. With few exceptions, segregated schools for poor black students ended at grade eight. In other words, for most African Americans, junior high was the end of the line even for the most gifted students. But Joshua Coleman realized that his daughter was special — she was ready for high school at age 10 — so he drove his family 120 miles to Institute, West Virginia, to further her education. It proved prophetic. Johnson graduated from high school at 14, and college just four years later.

Like her father, Johnson’s high school principal recognized that she was destined for greatness. He would walk her home during the winter evenings when darkness had descended early, talking to her about the stars, and helping her identify the constellations.

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