You may remember Johnson from the 2016 book “Hidden Figures” and the film based on it. I wish I’d known about the story sooner. As Johnson’s NASA mentee Yvonne Darlene Cagle writes in the foreword: “Why didn’t all little girls know, especially little girls of color? Why did I have to go through so much hurt and heartache in life when I could have looked at her and held my head high and stepped through with such poise, comportment, and grace? Why couldn’t I have had that voice that spoke, not just to the world, but to my heart, to my resolve?”
Now, we know. “Hidden Figures” turned Johnson into an international star when she was in her late 90s. Her story — rising from anonymity and discrimination to become a research mathematician whose precise calculations helped many vital projects, including John Glenn’s 1962 orbit of Earth — has inspired many. Johnson received a standing ovation when she appeared onstage, in a wheelchair, at the 2017 Academy Awards, surrounded by the trio of actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe — who portrayed the women at the center of “Hidden Figures.” Johnson may not have won an Oscar, but she broke many barriers throughout her life, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and other honors, before she died, at age 101, last year.
As you might expect, numbers are at the center of “My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir.” Numbers never intimidated Johnson — in fact, they thrilled her. The symmetry, the structural interplay of equations and formulas, were always in her head.
“The thing I loved about math, more than any other subject, was that there was a definite right or wrong answer,” she writes. “I loved counting everything I saw, and I always pushed myself to go higher and higher.”
Johnson says she got her math ability from her father, Josh Coleman, who was a generation removed from slavery and had only a sixth-grade education. “Daddy’s mind was quick with numbers,” she explains. “He could add, subtract, and do complicated math problems in his head. He also could look at a tree and instinctively know how many logs he could get from it.”
The book was written with her daughters Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore and completed by them after Johnson’s death. The memoir offers a more personal perspective on the story first made famous by Margot Lee Shetterley’s book. Johnson discusses some of the disparities between her life and what we saw on screen. Most endearingly, we hear Johnson’s wonderful and often witty voice. “I’ve been around longer than sliced bread, which didn’t become one of the century’s great inventions (or at least the thing by which everything good is compared) until 1928,” she writes in the opening pages. Of her meeting with President Barack Obama in 2015, she says: “so many people, especially the women, have asked me how it felt to be kissed by President Obama. All I can say is it was thrilling.”
Johnson was born in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia in 1918. Her parents moved to White Sulphur Springs to provide their children with education beyond seventh grade. Black children outside the town didn’t have this option at the time. During summers, the children and their father worked as bellboys and valets at the Greenbrier, an expansive resort nearby.
A precocious child, Johnson skipped several grades and graduated from elementary school at the age of 10. At 15, she started college at West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College), where she excelled in French, English, music, and not surprisingly, math. She was mentored by William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, who had a Ph.D. in math, “only the third Negro in the entire country to receive a doctorate degree in math.” It was Claytor who suggested that Johnson become a research mathematician. He created a course, “Analytic Geometry of Space,” for her. Johnson got her first job, as a teacher, at the age of 19.
“I grew up and was told by law that I had to sit in the back of buses, climb to isolated theater balconies, and use colored water fountains and bathrooms, because of my race,” she writes, “but I chose to believe Daddy. I was just as good as anyone else, but no better.”
Johnson’s story is not just about one woman’s success but about the entire 20th century, including changing roles of women in the workforce, the civil rights movement and the “Space Race.” Her achievements were considerable.
For instance, in 1940, West Virginia University decided to admit three Black students to integrate the campus. Johnson was one of them — the only woman in the group — and she jumped at the chance to go to graduate school. But it was a cultural adjustment. For the first time in her life, she was in a predominantly White institution.
“I don’t know if the other students knew who I was or, given the light complexion of my skin, that I was a Negro,” writes Johnson. By then she was married, and she dropped out when she got pregnant.
The couple raised three daughters, eventually moving to Newport News, Va., for better jobs. She worked as a substitute teacher in 1952, teaching “quadratic equations, geometric construction, logarithms, polynomials, whatever they needed,” she explains. Her students “got the message early that math is everywhere, and it’s not to be feared.” Eventually she applied for a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) and was hired in 1953 as a mathematician, then called a “computer.”
Widowed in 1956 at age 38, Johnson continued her professional ascent. The civil rights movement unfolded, changing America forever. The Space Race began, and she was part of it all. She didn’t retire until 1986 and had witnessed many advances into space, supplying her math skills to the end. In her later years, as the accolades came streaming in — including 13 honorary doctorate degrees and four major buildings named in her honor — Johnson maintained a remarkable humility. “If I’ve done anything in my life to deserve any of this, it is because I had great parents who taught me simple but powerful lessons that sustained me in the most challenging times,” she writes. “I was always proud of my work, but for Pete’s sake, I didn’t do anything alone.”
Lisa Page is co-editor of “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.” She is assistant professor of English at George Washington University.
My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir
By Katherine Johnson with Joylette Hylick, Katherine Moore and Lisa Frazier Page
Amistad. 256 pp. $25.99