Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Katherine Johnson talks about her early affinity for mathematics, a college professor who noticed her gift and pushed her to pursue advanced math courses and how she eventually became a NASA mathematician who calculated, among many other computations, the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space.
Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician
Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Math. It's just there. It has always been a part of whatever I was doing.
- All engines running.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: You're either right or you're wrong. That I liked about it.
They tell me I counted everything. Everybody studied at a big table, and after I finished mine, I helped them get theirs. And I was the youngest. I wound up ahead of my brother, maybe two grades. I don't remember how many. I entered college. I was 15. I was gonna be a math teacher because that was it. You could be a nurse or a teacher.
He said, you'd make a good research mathematician. I said, oh? What do they do? He said, you'll find out. So he had me take all the courses in the catalog. Sometimes I was the only person in the course. I said, where will I find a job? He said, you'll look till you find it. Took me seven years, but I found it.
He said, you're very lucky. Langley has a post for black mathematicians, just opened it up to women. They had a pool of women mathematicians. They just wanted somebody to do all the little stuff, while they did the thinking. We were called computers, women computers. I had been there less than a week, when this engineer came in and wanted two women computers, and Mrs. Vaughn sent me over to the flight branch. And we never went back.
- Today, a new moon is in the sky, placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Oh, they felt terrible that, here we sat, and the Russians had a vehicle riding around, looking down on you. So we set out to send somebody up there and look down to. They'd called up a group of engineers and have a briefing as to what they were gonna have to do. And I asked, could I go? They said, women don't ever go to those. I said, is there a law against it? They said, no, well, let her go ahead. I wanted to know what it was they were looking for. So I wound up doing what it was they were trying to find out.
- Commander Alan B. Shepard was to become the first man sent into sub-orbital flight. The Mercury capsule is right on course.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: Our office computed every mission that went out at that time-- the height, the speed, and so on. It became a geometry problem.
- Ignition sequence start.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: I felt most proud of the success of the Apollo mission.
- Zero. All engines running--
KATHERINE JOHNSON: They were going to the moon.
- We have a lift off.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: I computed the path that would get you there. You determined where you were on Earth when you started out, and where the moon would be at a given time. We told them how fast they would be going, and the moon will be there by the time you got there.
- Beautiful, just beautiful.
KATHERINE JOHNSON: We were really concerned when they were leaving the moon, going back. He had two adjusters, we said. If he'd missed it by a degree, he doesn't get into orbit. I was looking at the television. I said, boy, I hope he's got that right.
And I was sitting there hoping I'm right, too.
John Glenn said, tell her. He knew that I was the only woman that worked on it. He said, if she comes up with the same answer that they have, then the computer's right. It took me a day and a half to compute what the computer had given them. Turned out to be the exact numbers that they had.
It was my job. And I did my job correctly and well.
- I realized that as First Lady you can bring so much attention and marshal so many resources to really help on whatever issue that you're focused on so I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. I'm a Chicago native, I grew up on the South Side in a really small apartment with my parents and my older brother Craig. My dad worked as a pump operator at the city water plant. My mom stayed at home and so we didn't have a lot of money but my brother and I were blessed with something far more valuable because our parents truly gave us unconditional love and encouragement to go places they never imagined for themselves. Neither of them had a college degree but they made it very clear that they expected me and my brother to get the best education possible so school was always, always the center of our lives. So I made it my point to give it 120%. The early part of my life was focused on sort of reaching those traditional markers of success. I focused on getting the right degrees, going to the right schools. So by the time I was in my mid 20s and working at a firm I had everything that I was told I should want but I could still feel that there was something missing. I started to ask myself some more important questions like what do I really care about and how do I give something back? I wanted to be in a position to help folks from neighborhoods like mine, especially young people, have the opportunities that I had. So I quit my job at the law firm and found myself working in careers where I could spend my time lifting up the kinds of communities that I grew up in. The inauguration was one of the coldest Januaries that I've spent here in Washington D.C. It was freezing. I really remember what it felt like to walk out the steps of the Capitol and stand there with Barack as he took the oath of office and look out at what felt like endless amounts of people standing as far as the eye could see from every race, age, background you could imagine would come from every corner of the country just to witness this historic moment. It was probably one of the most profoundly moving experiences that I've ever had. And to have our girls there with us, those two little bitty girls standing on that stage is a moment I'll never forget. This role, it's a real gift because it brings with it this big bright spotlight and that's why I've worked hard to choose work on issues that I care deeply about, that I feel really defines me or that I'm connected with, that will really make a difference in peoples' lives. We've really worked to raise the profile of this issue. I've had the opportunity to travel the world and everywhere I go I meet these amazing young women and they impress me with how bright and how hungry they are no matter what their circumstances are, they'd risk their lives for an education. And they have so much promise that we can't afford to waste. I see myself in these girls so I want Let Girls Learn to be part of my life's work for decades to come because for me this issue is personal. I hoped that I've used my big spotlight to move the needle on a whole range of issues but I feel honored and blessed to have served this role for my country.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I get to sit on a kitchen stool in a federal government uniform in a little theater sharing my truths. They put a soapbox under my feet and a microphone in my hand, and I get to get even.
The expectations for black women when I was growing up was you became a domestic servant or would work in agriculture. And that would have been my choice, or at least my fate, except that I married Mel Reid. Mel was in his senior year at the University of San Francisco playing left halfback for the San Francisco Dons. And what 19-year-old wouldn't prefer that? So I completely escaped that life of servitude.
I worked in a Jim Crow segregated union hall. I stood at my little window making change of addresses for the people lined up at my window, and I really assumed that all the shipyard workers were black because the only people I saw were the people who came to my window. It was the time when formal racial segregation ended in my life.
Mel and I thought nothing of going out and buying a lot in the suburbs without realizing those people are out there to get away from people like us. And we went through five years of death threats. My third grader was the only black kid in the school the semester that we moved into our new house. The fundraiser of the PTA that year was a minstrel show, and all of the teachers and the administrators were in blackface.
That was suburban life in 1953. 20 years later, that same community sent me to represent them as a McGovern delegate to the Miami convention.
I immediately recognized the sites that formed the park were all sites of racial segregation. There was nobody in that room that had any reason to know that but me. And I realized there was no intention to leave my history out, but my history would never be told and that there were so many stories that were not being told.
There's a rich Mexican-American history. There's a Japanese-American history. This was all American history. And so I became actively involved in the early plans to be sure that that history was not omitted.
At this point, I'm working a five-hour day, five days a week. I give three to five presentations in a little theater. Little because it's only a 48 seat. I sell out like Hamilton. You know?
It is my honor to present to you the President of the United States.
BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, Betty, for that introduction, for your extraordinary service.
BETTY REID SOSKIN: I am still having first experiences at 96. I wake up every morning and shoot out of bed because I can't wait to see what next week is. I don't expect to retire at all. I'm going to go straight from the park to the cemetery.
NICHELLE NICHOLS: We would rehearse, and it would be a beautiful scene. And then they'd bring down the rewrites, and I had less to say. What would start out to be a beautiful participation became yes sir, no sir, and I can't reach Starfleet Command, sir.
I get a phone call from my agent. They want you down at the audition. They gave me the script. I had no idea what it's about. It was three characters, somebody named Bones, somebody named Kirk, somebody named Spock. I looked at it and, oh, really good scene.
Uhura was an interesting character to me, and I fell in love with her. She will take no nonsense from anyone. And she is a professional. The character was so strong, people from the south have told me that they were forbidden to watch the show because it was integrated.
There was a scene that changed the face of television forever. We were being forced by these people who had tremendous kinetic powers to do their bidding. And the scene culminated in them forcing Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura to kiss.
Bill Shatner was just delighted. He said, I knew I'd get you in my arms one day. And so we did eight takes because Bill kept saying, it doesn't feel right. I think-- maybe I'm holding her-- are you getting a good shot? That is how the first interracial kiss happened on TV.
So I was thinking about leaving the show. As fate would have it, I had been invited as a celebrity guest. I believe it was an NAACP fundraiser. And so I had just sat down at the dais when one of the promoters-- organizers came over and said, Miss Nichols, there's someone who wants to meet you. He says he's your greatest fan. And I'm thinking it's a Trekker.
So I went to turn around and look straight in the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, who has this beautiful smile on his face. He said, Uhura is more than just a communications officer. You're a symbol. The work you are doing, you may not know how important it is, but we who are fighting the good fight stop and watch you on Thursday night when you're on.
I went everywhere to recruit. I went to universities that had strong science and engineering programs. I was a guest at NORAD where no civilian had gone before. They were all Trekkers. They let me in.
At the end of the recruitment, NASA had so many qualified people-- highly qualified. They took six women. They took three African American men. It was a very fulfilling accomplishment for me.
DIANE NASH: A lot of people say, oh, you're so brave and think I wasn't afraid, and that is not true. I was really, really, afraid.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. That was the first time that I personally had encountered signs that said white and colored on water fountains and restrooms. It was possible for blacks to buy food in a restaurant on a carry-out basis, but you couldn't sit in the restaurant and eat it. I found that humiliating.
I did not want to be chairperson. I was afraid to be chairperson, and I remember thinking, we are facing white racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students, 18, 19, 20 years old.
Our first sit-in was February 13. We targeted six lunch counters. People often have the impression that a group of black students would say, hey, let's have a sit-in, but there was a great deal of work and planning that went into it.
One of the things that we anticipated was that white people, segregationists, would say they didn't want to sit next to dirty, smelly Negroes in restaurants. So we developed a dress code. The young men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses. I got confidence in my ability to work effectively in the movement.
We had prepared for that in the workshops. Everybody who went had pledged to be nonviolent. When they announced that we were under arrest, everyone got up and walked willingly to the patrol wagon. And when the police turned around, a whole new set of demonstrators had taken seats at the lunch counter.
That very day, we organized a march to City Hall. Several thousand people marched. It was a silent march. We met the mayor.
I asked the mayor, Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?
BEN WEST: I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to refuse them service, and I had to answer it just exactly that way.
DIANE NASH: That was a turning point. The following day, "The Nashville Tennessean" ran a headline and it said, "Integrate Counters-- Mayor."
The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things that even you didn't know were there. You didn't have to be a man to be courageous.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I learn to be a feminist from being black. I learned to be a feminist from being denied my rights as an African-American. I'm a third generation Washingtonian, born in a city where residents had no vote in Congress, no vote for president of the United States, paid federal taxes, and had segregation in all of its facilities and schools mandated by the Congress of the United States. That didn't sit well with my parents.
By the time I got to Yale Law School, I knew exactly what I wanted to do all right. Remember there was no civil rights movement. So if you wanted to do something that helped move black people out of their virtual apartheid state, being a lawyer seemed to make good sense. Black women were initially perplexed about how they should respond to the Women's Movement. Its first face was a white face. That meant white privilege.
How are we to respond? Well, some of us felt pretty clearly how to respond. For that you can be both female and black at the same time. And if you didn't think you could, you are. You need to come to grips with that. I literally had to go around to women's organizations and I said, why is it that only blacks file complaints before my commission. I remember that I was so frustrated that I had the first comprehensive hearing on women's rights. It was a part of consciousness raising so that women would have, in fact, do something when they found themselves in the workforce treated equally.
When President Carter appointed me to chair to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the problem really stemmed from certain kinds of complaints. What complaints we saw work horrendous. Sometimes I wouldn't call them sexual harassment. I would call them sexual assault. And we issued the first sexual harassment guidelines. They were later affirmed by the Supreme Court. Then women began to come forward.
The women in Congress met on the floor, and we decided that some of us had better get over to the Senate or this was going to be a done deal.
Now I do not believe that Professor Anita Hill should be left to stand alone without being heard. We knocked on the door of the Senate. We were not let in, but television cameras had followed us and they knew they had to do something.
ANITA HILL: There's no motivation that would show that I would make up something like this.
ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: There's no question that Anita Hill will inspire others to come forward. But Anita Hill did something even larger for women. There developed the year of the woman, and that's when we got the first African-American woman in the Senate and a group far larger than usual elected to the house.
Every new group has a moment which is legitimately called a revolution. Once that first burst, in fact, breaks through, that revolutionary moment may be gone, but the notions, the movement, the energy continues.
ALICE WALKER: My mother tells the story about me as a writer before I knew what a writer was. She said that she would miss me, and I would have crawled all around to the back of the house. And I would be sitting there with the Sear-Roebuck catalog, and I would be writing in the margins of it with a twig.
The sharecropping system was basically slavery with a new name. My parents milked the cows and took care of home dairy for the woman who owned the land. My mother planted so many flowers around our shack that it disappeared as a, shack and it became just an amazing place. So my sense of poverty was always seen through this screen of incredible ingenuity and artistic power.
When I went off to college, my father took me to the bus stop and I sat down in the front of the bus and there was a white woman who just went into a fit. So she complained to the driver, and he got up and he forced me to sit-in the back. I thought, OK, I can refuse and sit-in the front and I can be arrested in this little town, or I can stay on the bus, get to Atlanta, check into my college, and immediately join the movement for civil rights.
In most literature, the lives of the people that I knew did not exist. My mother, for instance, was nowhere in the literature, and she was all over my heart. So why shouldn't she be in literature? People like my parents and my grandparents, the stories that I heard about their younger years were riveting.
I started writing this novel longing to hear their speech. I was so determined to give them a voice, because if you deny people a voice, their own voice, there's no way you'll ever know who they were. And so they are erased. What I would like people to understand when they read The Color Purple is that there are all these terrible things that can actually happen to us, and yet life is so incredibly magical and abundant and present that we can still be very happy.
BARBARA SMITH: I grew up thinking that I was really ugly because I never saw anyone who looked faintly like me being looked at as a beautiful person. The message that I got was that black people and black women did not matter.
There were high expectations in our family for everyone, including my sister and me. I always was interested in writing and in English and in reading, and particularly in reading, devouring books.
I had the opportunity to read "Go Tell It on the Mountain." It was a complete break point moment, because that was the first time I'd ever read anything that was remotely similar to the kind of family I was growing up in.
The reason I went to graduate school was so I could teach African American literature. And there was not a single woman of color on the syllabus. Black studies and black literature was about black male experiences, and women's studies, which was just beginning at the same time, was very much about white women's experiences.
We were just left out of the curriculum.
It was wonderful. It was like every new day was a revelation. We were learning about ourselves. I mean, one of the ways you figure out who you are in the world is that you experience art that reflects your experience, and that's what we're doing every single day. Wow, I just read "Their Eyes Were Watching God," you will not believe this book.
We realize that until we had our own means of getting our voices out and our points of view out, that we would be a few steps back. We needed to have a press of our own.
The books that we created and the pamphlets and the posters, they were so embraced. People were so excited.
We really made an impact on mainstream publishing. You saw more and more women of color being published by those presses. People like Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, and it's because we started it.
I still speak on college and university campuses. And I just meet younger black women who have come of age thinking that they had great value, that there was nothing wrong with the way they looked, the way they sounded, the things that were important to them. Because they do look out and see their faces reflected in places that we did not.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My parents had me absolutely convinced that, even if I couldn't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, I could be president of the United States if I wanted to be.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, the most segregated big city in America. My parents believed education was really the great shield against racism. I had piano lessons and I had ballet lessons and I had French lessons, every lesson known to humankind. But of course, you couldn't completely shield your children from the ugliness of segregation.
We actually felt the bomb go off that Sunday morning.
Suddenly, it was very personal, because Denise McNair had been in my father's kindergarten. I remember as a child just not understanding how people could hate us that much, and for the first time really being pretty scared.
From as long as I could remember, I was going to be a concert pianist. And then, in the spring quarter of my junior year, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist, a man named Josef Korbel, who was, ironically, Madeleine Albright's father. And Josef Korbel opened up this world to me of diplomacy and international politics and things Russian. And all of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do.
We met Gorbachev, and President Bush turned to me and he said, this is my Soviet advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and she tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev said, well, I hope she knows a lot.
I actually had a Russian general say to me once, what's a nice girl like you doing interested in these military affairs? But over time, you realize that if you become known as capable at what you're doing, those prejudices tend to go away.
You think about the momentousness of what happened, that, on your watch, the territory of the United States had been attacked. We had to try and protect the country. We were certain that there was a follow-on attack coming. For us, every day after September 11th was September 12th, over and over and over again.
You have to learn with criticism that it comes with the territory. If you aren't prepared to be criticized, then you're probably not prepared to take hard decisions.
Immediately after the election, I walked into the Oval and I said, congratulations, sir. And he looked at me and he said, you know I want you to be Secretary of State.
The advice I give to all young people is don't let anybody else define what you're going to be because of your gender or race. If you decide that you are interested in the Soviet Union, you may be female and black, but you're interested in the Soviet Union. And it's worked out pretty well for me.