The Quiet Giant Who Left a Monumental Impact

It is 2020…100 years of women voting in this country.  As we look back to notable moments like this in history, we celebrate women leaders and acknowledge that the path to gender equality has not been inclusive and we are still on it.  For that reason, the Change Matrix team is beginning a series of personal essays about women.  They might be women we know who were models or mentors and influenced us as professionals.  They might be women whose work we have loved and integrated into our own.  They might be about our identification as women through a cultural lens.

Tennille

For as long as I can remember I have always had a love for math. While there are so many things in this world that are left up to interpretation, math is not. Math is a constant in an ever changing world. 1+1 will always equal 2. “In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong,” Katherine Johnson told Vanity Fair in the summer of 2016.
In her life, Katherine made it acceptable to be the smart little black girl who excelled in math as well as many other things. Katherine Johnson wasn’t just an African American woman; she was a Mathematician “the girl” astronaut John Glenn turned to when he didn’t trust his life to the electronic calculating machines that had constructed his flight plan.

As a part of his preflight checklist, John Glenn (the first American to orbit the earth) asked engineers to get “the girl.” Ms. Johnson was asked to run the same numbers through the same equations by hand. Today, no one second-guesses a computer. But then, just as space exploration was new, so were computers. Glenn trusted Johnson to ensure his orbital mission was a success.

Katherine Johnson graduated college at age 18, and in 1939 Katherine was handpicked to be one of just three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools.

Then, fast forward these past 71 years; the fact that we are still celebrating “firsts” for black women’s accomplishments lets us know that even though we have come so far, there is still so much further to go.

Ms. Katherine Johnson was in her life a quiet giant in a field that was dominated by white males. Her continued efforts to be heard in a room where many didn’t even think she should be seen, makes my continued success in my field that much more satisfying. My personal debt to Katherine being that were it not for her having paved my way, I wouldn’t be able to have obtained my “Doctorate in Business Administration,” the terminal degree in my field.

On Monday, Ms. Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101. While Heaven gained an angel, the world lost a true treasure. Katherine lived a long and fulfilling life guided by stellar dreams and ambitions achieved. The trail Katherine blazed, the obstacles she overcame, and the many accolades she received along the way have proven beyond question that a little black girl with a love for math can grasp the moon and beyond.

Katherine Johnson is more than just an inspiration to me in my career and life. Katherine Johnson is a shining beacon by which all should be guided.