During the era of legal segregation, Southern and border state legislatures relegated African Americans to limited undergraduate educational opportunities at severely underfunded tax-supported black colleges. Public graduate and professional school education was virtually nonexistent. To comply with the Supreme Court’s 1896 separate-but-equal doctrine, these states sent thousands of young African Americans to the other regions of the country for the post-baccalaureate education that white citizens received in state. Southern and border states purported to offer black and white citizens the same graduate opportunities, although only black students had to leave the land of their birth to receive graduate training.
Usually, financial assistance provided to black students covered the difference between the cost of pursuing a course of study at an in-state white public institution and the cost of pursuing the same program at the out-of-state school that the black students attended. Some states also paid travel expenses. Nonetheless, these ambitious students had no choice but to leave their friends, family and communities behind — and venture alone to unfamiliar and often inhospitable states hundreds of miles away — to reach their highest potential.
Lloyd Gaines, a 24-year-old black Missouri native with aspirations to be an attorney, challenged this arrangement in 1935 when he applied to the University of Missouri Law School. NAACP attorney Charles Hamilton Houston took Gaines’s case all the way to the Supreme Court. In a historic 6-to-2 decision in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the court decreed that states had a responsibility to offer white and black citizens the same education within their borders. The case was the first successful legal challenge against the doctrine of separate but equal, and the outcome paved the way for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
But segregationist states wouldn't back down easily. In response to Gaines, many states established a few poorly funded graduate and professional school programs at public black colleges while continuing to force the majority of black scholars to go elsewhere.
As the Gaines case made its way through the legal system, West Virginia lawmakers wrestled with the idea of a $2 million appropriation to establish a graduate school at West Virginia State College (WVSC), the state’s black land-grant institution, which had opened in 1891. When WVSC President John W. Davis got wind of the proposal in 1937, he urged lawmakers to use the money to improve graduate programs at the state’s flagship, the all-white West Virginia University (WVU), on the condition that those programs accept black students.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1938 and the acquiesce of WVU’s president to Davis’s suggestion, WVU became the first tax-supported border and Southern state university to admit black students for graduate study. (The University of Maryland admitted Donald Murray to its law school in 1936, but graduate study continued to be off-limits to African Americans.)
Davis personally selected the first three black students — two men and one woman — to enroll in graduate programs at WVU. Katherine Johnson, a public school teacher who had graduated summa cum laude from WVSC in 1937 with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French, was one of those selected.
The historic matriculation of these students largely went unnoticed by both the media and the public in 1940. While there were no threats of violence or crowds of jeering segregationists, Johnson and other black graduate students faced tremendous obstacles. They could not eat in the cafeteria, participate in extracurricular activities or live on campus.
Such institutional racism undoubtedly fostered isolation and mistreatment. Many black student trailblazers formed community in hostile environments through membership in black sororities and fraternities. Johnson had joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority (AKA) as an undergraduate at WVSC, and it is likely she socialized with other AKA members in Morgantown, W.Va., to survive racial discrimination on campus and achieve a sense of belonging.
In the end, Johnson left her WVU graduate program early to start a family. She and her first husband, James Goble, had three daughters to support, and her familial responsibilities took away the luxury of advanced study. This choice was common for women, particularly black women.
Yet, Johnson’s résumé and academic prowess in math and science helped her secure a position in 1953 with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where she performed the calculations for America’s first human spaceflight. NACA was replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. As had been the case at WVU, Johnson once again learned that being a trailblazer came at a cost, and helping a man orbit the Earth did not insulate her from second-class citizenship. She and other black women at NASA experienced segregated restrooms and housing and were often excluded from meetings.
Johnson’s vast achievements demonstrated the intellectual capabilities of black students — black women in particular. While she did not graduate from WVU, her presence on campus had made plain the immorality and illogic of keeping African Americans out of Southern universities. Despite her work, West Virginia continued to force most black students out of state for graduate study until 1956, when the Brown decision led state officials to completely desegregate its public universities.
No other state followed West Virginia’s lead in pursuing even limited desegregation of graduate education in the years immediately after Gaines. In fact, many states doubled down on their commitment to segregation in higher education by allocating more funds to send black students out of state in defiance of the court ruling. Such recalcitrance reminded African Americans that court victories meant nothing without vigorous enforcement.
Johnson skillfully navigated the lonely and often hostile ivory tower, and the result was a successful orbital flight by a U.S. astronaut during the Cold War-era space race. Her efforts paved the way for countless other black female scholars, including Mae Jemison and Patrice Harris. Harris, a West Virginia native like Johnson, earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from WVU and was the first African American woman elected president of the American Medical Association. Johnson and those she inspired are living proof that scientific progress — and by extension, achievement in any other field of endeavor — is inextricably linked to giving everyone an opportunity to develop their unique talents, skills and abilities.
Johnson’s achievements have been recognized in numerous ways, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Barbie doll bearing her likeness, and a scholarship and statue in her honor at her beloved alma mater, West Virginia State University. In 2016, West Virginia University — the institution she desegregated — awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters. While each of these accolades was as well deserved as they were long overdue, perhaps the best way to honor Johnson is to recommit ourselves to doing the urgent work of removing the enduring racial and gender barriers that prevent other black women from reaching their full scholarly potential. As Johnson’s life — and now, her legacy — clearly show, it is not simply scholars such as Jemison and Harris, but rather the entire country, that would reap the benefits.
Correction: This piece originally stated that John Glenn was the first American in space. That was actually Alan Shepard. Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth.