Johnson’s talent and contributions are well documented now, but for most of her life, her efforts went unrecognized—until Shetterly published her book in 2016, and the film it inspired became a blockbuster. For the first time, a wider swath of the world learned about Johnson and how she made a place for herself in American spaceflight. The book chronicled the lives of Johnson and the other black female mathematicians who worked as “computers” at the Langley Research Center, using pencils and slide rules to calculate equations for the agency that would become NASA.
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The sciences are well known for their infuriating tendency to overlook important figures who aren’t white and male. But the stories of these women in particular had been buried so deep in the archives of history that when Shetterly brought them to light, it felt like a revelation. In her late 90s, Johnson was finally celebrated—widely and loudly—for her contributions to one of the most iconic accomplishments of the 20th century.
She was inundated with press coverage, had buildings renamed in her honor, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The burst of overdue recognition didn’t seem to faze her. “There’s nothing to it—I was just doing my job,” she said in a Washington Post interview in 2017. “They needed information and I had it, and it didn’t matter that I found it. At the time, it was just a question and an answer.”
Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to a schoolteacher and a farmer. She had a sharp mathematical mind as a child, and by the time she was 13 years old, she was taking classes at West Virginia State College, where she later earned her degree. She briefly attended West Virginia University to study for a master’s degree in math, becoming one of the first black students in the program, before leaving to start a family. She was teaching at a black public school in Virginia when a relative told her about job openings with Langley’s cadre of human computers, led by another black mathematician, Dorothy Vaughan.
Johnson arrived at Langley in 1953. At a place like Langley, any woman would have faced sexism in that era; Johnson and her colleagues had to confront the racism of the time, too. A cardboard sign on a cafeteria table, delineating where “colored computers” could sit, had been done away with by the time she got there, but the signage over the bathrooms remained. Johnson focused on her work. “She didn’t close her eyes to the racism that existed,” Shetterly wrote. “But she didn’t feel it in the same way. She wished it away, willed it out of existence inasmuch as her daily life was concerned.”
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