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WVU Libraries to honor Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

West Virginia University Libraries and the West Virginia and Regional History Center will celebrate the life and legacy of the NASA mathematician and space pioneer Katherine Johnson in the Downtown Library’s Milano Reading Room on September 29 at 3:30 p.m.

At the event, West Virginia and Regional History Center Director Lori Hostuttler will announce Johnson as the latest addition to the WVRHC’s Distinguished West Virginians Program and officially open Johnson’s archives, which include notebooks, photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, awards and other materials.

“I am delighted that the Katherine Goble Johnson Papers are now available for all to see and use at the WVRHC,” Hostuttler said. “They provide valuable insight into her extraordinary life for future researchers and scholars. Her story is a source of inspiration for all West Virginians – it is an honor to steward her collection.”

Most people learn about Johnson’s achievements through her portrayal by Taraji Henson in the movie “Hidden Figures,” which highlighted the struggles of black women mathematicians and others working for the early days of NASA.

Audiences watched her climb a ladder and on a large chalkboard calculate astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around Earth for his February 20, 1962 mission. Johnson was asked to verify the numbers produced by NASA’s computers for that flight.

She also made significant strides by contributing to various reports, such as a trajectory analysis for the 1961 Freedom 7 mission with Alan Shepard, America's inaugural human spaceflight. Additionally, alongside engineer Ted Skopinski, she authored “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position,” marking the first instance of a woman in the Flight Research Division being credited as an author of a research report.

“Katherine Johnson’s story serves as an inspiration for so many people – myself included,” Wes Deadrick, director of NASA’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility in Fairmont, said. “Her accomplishments helped pave the way for other women, people of color, and even folks from more rural areas to find a place for themselves at NASA.”

Deadrick will deliver remarks during the event, and Johnson’s daughters, Joylette Goble Hylick and Katherine Goble Moore will participate in a question and answer session. Also, Johnson’s autobiography, “My Remarkable Journey – A Memoir,” will be available for signing. 

In addition, a selection of items from Johnson’s collection will be on display.

Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. and completed high school at 14. She graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College (now University) with degrees in mathematics and French. She pursued graduate studies at WVU, where she was one of the first black graduate students.

In 1953, after teaching for seven years in elementary and high schools in West Virginia and Virginia, she began working as a pool mathematician or “computer” for the Langley Research Center part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Hampton, Va. Johnson continued to work as an aerospace technologist until her retirement in 1986.

In November 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On Sept. 22, 2017, NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Fairmont. She died on Feb. 24, 2020, but her legacy continues through her archives at the WVRHC.

“We are honored to host the archives that highlight the life and impact of such an important American, and such a distinguished West Virginian in our West Virginia and Regional History Center,” Dean of Libraries Karen Diaz said. “These archives are important markers of Katherine Johnson's humanity and talent and will continue to be used by researchers over time.”