Katherine Johnson

Katherine’s Story

“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.”

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother was an educator, and her father was a farmer and a janitor.

Katherine was the apple of her father’s eye. He taught her that she was no better than anyone else, and that no one was better than her. This life lesson became the foundation of Katherine’s resilience and confidence.

Education Can Open Doors

Katherine’s parents were determined that their children must get a college degree and seized every opportunity to put her and her siblings into the best schools available. Katherine excelled, and started high school at just 10 years old.

At West Virginia State College, she met her mentor, mathematics professor Dr. William Claytor. He lit a spark in Katherine by telling her that she would make a good research mathematician and creating a class just for her called Analytic Geometry of Space, which helped prepare her for her future career in space exploration. She graduated from college summa cum laude in 1937, at just 18 years old.

Nearly two decades before the Little Rock Nine, Katherine Johnson was chosen as one of three Black students, and the first Black woman, to integrate West Virginia University and pursue graduate studies. She studied math, but soon left to start a family.

Katherine graduated from West Virginia State in 1937. Here she is with two of her classmates.

Katherine Johnson and her sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. TM 

Katherine's Sorority Life

“I couldn’t wait to get to college to join Alpha Kappa Alpha. I have enjoyed being part of uplifting our community through scholarship programs, mentoring, voter registration, and so much more for more than eighty years. I especially love the camaraderie and the strong network of college-educated, highly motivated black women.”

Katherine Johnson

Katherine’s high school math teacher inspired her to join Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. TM, which remained a constant in her life for more than 80 years.

She brought her gifts as a musician to AKA. She was the founder of the Lambda Omega chapter chorale and served as its director. She was also chapter president twice.

Katherine celebrated her 99th birthday with a cake that was out of this world.

“She was able to identify the potential in someone and then work with you to foster your talent and make you feel confident. The way she gave suggestions made you know that you could reach for the stars.”

Maggie Macklin, Katherine’s Sorority Sister and Mentee

On her 99th birthday, her sorors threw her a “PARTY OF THE NINES” with representatives from The National Pan-Hellenic Council, colloquially known as “The Divine Nine,” in attendance. Each one presented her with a pink rose and gift. The day was spent singing songs, sharing mathematical facts, and celebrating Katherine.

Katherine in Her Community

Katherine and her family went to church every Sunday. She used to quiz her daughters and have them count everyone in attendance. Katherine was very involved in the church; especially the choir, because of how much she loved music and her skills at the piano.

An educator at heart, Katherine always wanted children to do their best at what they are interested in. She did not try and push someone towards a particular path or answer, but encouraged them to do the best that they can do and expand their minds with as much information as possible. She would frequently tutor students, teach neighborhood children how to play piano, and mentor her sorority sisters.

Katherine was a West Virginia native who grew up in White Sulphur Springs.

Katherine and Jim Johnson loved their life together.

Falling in Love

At Katherine’s first teaching job, she met James Goble. She called him Jimmie, but his friends and family called him “Snook.” He was one of 13 children, and the entire family loved music—just like Katherine. The two were married in November 1939 and had three daughters together. Jimmie died in December 1956, after a two-year illness. Katherine and Jimmie had done their best to hide his illness from the girls, and the family was devastated by the loss. Katherine’s resilience helped guide the family out of this tough time.

“When school resumed in January, I told the principal that the girls were not to get any pity or special treatment in the days ahead. I wanted our daughters to understand that sometimes life hurts, but we have to keep moving forward.”

Katherine Johnson

She met her second husband, Captain James “Jim” Johnson, years later at choir practice, and the two married in a small ceremony at her home. He lovingly called her “Kid,” even though he was younger than her.

Katherine’s Daughters

Katherine and Jimmie had three daughters:

Joylette, the eldest, inherited Katherine’s demeanor and shared a passion for music, particularly the piano, and math, of course. Growing up, she did not understand the gravity of Katherine’s contributions in the Space Race until her mother’s story appeared in the NY Amsterdam News in 1961, which even the family did not see until many years later. She followed in her mother’s footsteps and worked as a NASA mathematician.

Connie, the middle child, inherited her mother’s fearlessness. She was the family daredevil; a free spirit who would try anything. Connie was an educator for a number of years and also started her own business, Connie’s Trucking. Connie died suddenly in 2010, before her mother’s achievements were widely recognized.

“Connie was my alter ego, the free spirit of the bunch, the one who was untethered to places and things, who would follow her heart wherever it led. I’m still mad at Connie for leaving us so soon. But I find comfort knowing that she lived each day like it would be her last.”

Katherine Johnson

Kathy, the youngest, inherited Katherine’s name and was always close to her mother and wanted to be in her favor. She was born just 10 days before Connie’s first birthday. The two were often treated as twins, and were in the same class together since the first grade. She also followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a teacher and guidance counselor for more than 30 years.

Katherine daughters Connie, Kathy, and Joylette.

Credit: Hugh Talman, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Life After Fame

“I certainly never expected any glory. I was just doing the job I was hired to do. … I was always proud of my work, but for Pete’s sake, I didn’t do anything alone.”

Katherine Johnson

At 97 years old, Katherine’s achievements became public knowledge. Her life after that was full of admiration and acknowledgements, ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom, over a dozen honorary degrees, major buildings and schools named in her honor, three published books, an onstage appearance at the Academy Awards where a movie inspired by her life and that of her colleagues was nominated for three awards, including Best Picture. She also had a multitude of plaques, framed certificates, and boxes of fan mail from all over the world. Throughout it all, she never lost her human touch in sharing her laurels.

Katherine and her husband Jim grew old together. Even in their 90s, when they both lived in an assisted living retirement community, they would ask their aides to turn their wheelchairs together so that they could give each other their traditional fist bump each night before bed. Jim died in 2019.

Remembering Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson died on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101.

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KCGJ Foundation is synonymous with education and the joy of learning for young people.  Our mission is to encourage, inspire and empower youth to pursue careers in STEM—especially math and science.

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