Katherine Johnson Recalls Meeting President Obama in Her Memoir, "My Remarkable Journey"

Photo credit: Temi Oyelola - Getty Images
Photo credit: Temi Oyelola - Getty Images


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By the time Katherine Johnson passed away at the age of 101 in February 2020, the Black research mathematician was internationally known for breaking barriers as one of a few pioneering “computers”—or women calculating the precise trajectories needed for America to put a man on the moon.

That renown came late in life, thanks to Margot Shetterly’s 2016 book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, which trained a long overdue spotlight on Johnson and her peers. The book was followed by the acclaimed film by the same name, in which Johnson is portrayed by Taraji Henson. Now comes Katherine Johnson's essential memoir, My Remarkable Journey, available May 25, which she collaborated on with one of her daughters and two other writers.

My Remarkable Journey encompasses the events of WWII and the advent of the civil rights movement, as well as many other of history's big moments, seen through Johnson's singular perspective. But what makes the book a joy to read are the pieces of homespun advice she sprinkles here and there, all evidence of the pluck and persistence it took to accomplish all that she did—racism and sexism be damned.

In this exclusive excerpt from the memoir, Johnson gives us a glimpse into the adventure that was her life.

One hundred years. Who really expects to live long enough to see an entire century? Few people in this country—less than 1 percent—make it that far. So one day in 2018, as my centennial birthday approached, I made light of the moment with my oldest daughter, Joylette.

“If I knew I’d live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” I whispered, quoting to her a line I’d heard somewhere before.

We both laughed.

The truth is I’m not complaining. I’ve had a wonderful life. Every day that I wake up in my right mind is a blessing, and I’ve been richly blessed to see the world change in miraculous ways. Think about it. I’ve been around longer than sliced bread, which didn’t become one of the century’s great inventions (or at least the thing by which everything good is compared) until 1928. By then I was already 10.

When I was born on August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the world was a very different place. The First World War was ending, and as soldiers made their way back to their families, a mysterious flu was spreading across the world in a pandemic that would claim an estimated 50 million lives over the next two years; a total of 675,000 people died in the United States of the virus, which came to be known as the Spanish flu. The year I was born, Ford Motor Company also was selling its popular Model T for about $350. That price tag made cars suddenly affordable for the first time to many middle-class Americans. But the all-black, mass-produced vehicles were still out of reach for most poor and working-class families, particularly in rural communities, like the one where I grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.

Of course, I was too young to know any of this firsthand, but I remember my father transporting our family around throughout my childhood in a horse-drawn buggy. In those years, most of what we needed was within walking distance. When we couldn’t walk, Daddy hitched the horses. My parents never owned a car.

I couldn’t have imagined as a child that someday highways would stretch from one side of the country to the next, zigzagging through the American landscape in all directions. Or that someday vehicles of all colors, shapes, and sizes would fill those roadways with busy people, always in a hurry to get to the next important place. Or that someday vehicles would park themselves. I was born at a time when women couldn’t vote, my people were called colored and treated as second-class citizens, and white lynch mobs terrorized our communities throughout the nation, particularly in the South. So even in my most vivid imagination—and I had a pretty creative one as a child—I could not envision the life I would live.

I have lived through 18 US presidents and mourned with the nation when two of the great ones died tragically in office. Never have I been prouder of this country than when we elected Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States, number 44. My husband, Jim, and I had been so hopeful that we sent a financial contribution to the Obama campaign. Then, on election night in 2008, we watched in astonishment as the poll results rolled in, confirming a victory we never thought we’d witness in our lifetime. America had looked beyond race and perhaps finally was ready to move past the racial fear, hatred, and misunderstanding that had bitterly divided the nation my entire life.

I don’t spend much time looking back or dwelling on race, but that night I couldn’t help thinking about my father, who had grown up in the shadows of slavery and had been limited by his race to a sixth-grade education. Yet Daddy recognized the value of education and made great sacrifices to assure that my sister, two brothers, and I were able to graduate from college. Daddy would have been so proud of the articulate, progressive, well-educated African American man and woman about to occupy the White House.

My older brother, Charlie, 91 years old in 2008, also was a big Barack Obama fan. One of his proudest possessions was an Obama cap that Kathy, my youngest daughter, had bought him. Charlie wore that cap everywhere. He was so eager to vote for Obama that he cast his vote early from a hospital bed via absentee ballot. Then, on November 3, 2008, just one day before the election, Charlie passed away. It brought me solace knowing that my brother’s vote had helped to make history.

Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images

So it was one of the greatest honors of my life when President Obama invited me to the White House in November 2015 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. At 97 years old I was being honored for my work as a research mathematician at NASA and its predecessor from 1953 to 1986. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe it. What had I done to deserve such an esteemed award? Then I wished I could have shared the honor with my team.

Though I was eventually assigned to a specific research team, I had started at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor to NASA, as part of the West Area Computing Unit, the segregated section of black female mathematicians at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. In the days before integration and before electronic computers, we worked as human computers, doing the mathematical calculations manually for the space program. The women in that unit were some of the smartest people I’ve ever known.

They included Dorothy Vaughan, who supervised the “West Computers,” as we were called, and was one of the first black supervisors at NASA; Eunice Smith, my good friend and neighbor, who had been a mathematician there nine years by the time I arrived; and Mary Jackson, the agency’s first black female engineer. Mary passed away in 2005 at age eighty-three; Eunice died a year later, at eighty-two; and Dot, in 2008 at ninety-eight. All three of the women enjoyed good, long lives, but they never got to experience the widespread public admiration that would come years later when the world discovered the important role that African American women played in helping to send the first humans to the moon. I don’t know what any of them would have made of all the attention, but I certainly never expected any glory. I was just doing the job I was hired to do.

Nevertheless, I was extremely grateful and humbled to meet President and Mrs. Obama and to receive such an honor. I still could hardly believe my eyes when I was ushered into the elegant East Room of the White House for the ceremony and seated right next to baseball legend Willie Mays, a fellow award winner. The quiet room seemed to grow even more still when President Obama began speaking, welcoming everyone to the White House. And then he said my name:

Growing up in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson counted everything. She counted steps. She counted dishes. She counted the distance to the church. By 10 years old, she was in high school. By eighteen she had graduated from college with degrees in math and French. As an African American woman, job options were limited, but she was eventually hired as one of several female mathematicians for the agency that would become NASA. Katherine calculated the flight path for America’s first mission in space, and the path that put Neil Armstrong on the moon. She was even asked to double-check the computer’s math on John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth.

The irony made people laugh. President Obama continued in a jovial mood:

"So if you think your job is pressure-packed, hers meant that forgetting to carry the one might send somebody floating off into the solar system. In her 33 years at NASA, Katherine was a pioneer who broke the barriers of race and gender, showing generations of young people that everyone can excel in math and science and reach for the stars."

A few minutes later, President Obama walked over to me, draped the medallion around my neck, and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you,” I whispered, looking up to him, as the audience applauded. Still seated, I turned my face to the guests, nodded my head, and mouthed again, “Thank you, thank you.” In the years since that wonderful day, so many people, especially the women, have asked me how it felt to be kissed by President Obama. All I can say is it was thrilling.

Little did I know that the White House ceremony was just the first big wave in an avalanche of attention headed my way. The next year, on May 6, 2016, NASA did the craziest thing—named a new, forty-thousand-square-foot building at Langley in my honor! The agency held a ceremony to unveil the name, and I attended, along with my family, friends, NASA employees, and other guests, totaling at least three hundred people. I’d spent so much of my life on these grounds and was incredibly moved—and again truly humbled—to see my name stretched across the front of this beautiful new building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. It consolidates the agency’s data in one place and provides lots of new office space. As long as this building stands, it will bear my name. Truly unbelievable. As I sat there, listening to the kind words from NASA officials and the local and state politicians, I wished again that my research team and all of the women who worked as computers could be sharing in this recognition. I was always proud of my work, but for Pete’s sake, I didn’t do anything alone.

The keynote speaker for the unveiling ceremony was Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book that told our story to the world: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Margot is a lovely young woman whose father earned prominence at Langley as a climate scientist. She had grown up in Hampton, Virginia, and knew many of the West Computers through family and community connections. She spent many hours over a few years, interviewing me for the book, as well as dozens of others, but I had no idea of the impact this hidden history would have on the world once it was revealed.

The book was released in September 2016 and quickly became a bestseller. The movie Hidden Figures, based on the book, was released in January of the following year. To prepare for the role, Taraji P. Henson, the beautiful actress who played me in the movie, had traveled to Newport News and spent several hours with me in my home. She was very kind, down-to-earth, and curious, and I enjoyed our time together. I saw the movie at least three times, and I must admit it was quite a strange feeling to hear my name and see someone else walking in my shoes. But Taraji and all of the actors did a phenomenal job. Remember, though, it’s a movie, so not every detail was true to my story. I’d estimate that about 75 percent of what was shown in the film is accurate. Some scenes were embellished or made up to increase the drama. For example, Dot, Mary, and I did not commute to work together. I mostly rode with Eunice Smith, who was mentioned in the book but wasn’t a character in the movie.

Also, I never had to rush back and forth across the Langley campus to use a segregated bathroom. While there were indeed separate bathrooms for white and black employees for much of my time at Langley, I always used the one closest to my workspace. At first, I didn’t even realize there were separate bathrooms because only the “colored” bathrooms were marked. There was no sign outside the restrooms designated for my white counterparts, and some buildings didn’t have a “colored” bathroom. So there were humiliating times when black employees had to walk a long distance to a different building to find a designated bathroom to relieve themselves. And that’s the ridiculous reality the movie depicted through my character. But in real life, I didn’t follow the rules. I figured I was as good as anybody else, so even after I realized there were “colored” restrooms, I just refused to use them.

Was I able to get away with it because of my fair skin complexion? That’s probable. I’d overheard a few conversations that let me know some of my white counterparts weren’t quite sure of my race. But as I saw it, that was their issue. I never tried to hide who I was. When people talk to me about the movie, many of them ask about the bathroom scene, and they seem surprised when I tell them the truth. The truth was more complicated, and it is sometimes difficult for a movie to explain such nuances. Also, I learned that some of the characters in the film were what the industry calls a “composite,” meaning the single role was based on the characteristics of multiple people.

At least a couple of the characters—supervisor Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) and Paul Stafford (played by Jim Parsons) were composites of a number of my white NASA colleagues. The fictional character Vivian Mitchell (played by Kirsten Dunst) was created to show the condescending attitude that some white female managers displayed toward their usually better-educated black female counterparts. Overall, I enjoyed the movie and was happy for the cast members when the film was nominated in the “Best Picture” category. What happened next, though, was another of those times that went beyond my imagination: I was invited to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards Show (the Oscars).

When the film company first called to ask me to attend, my daughters, Joylette and Kathy, said no. At my age, I would need far too many special accommodations to travel from the East to the West Coast safely. But the film company representatives persisted, asking what might make the trip possible for me. Certain that the requirements would be too much, my girls started listing the necessities: a private plane that could change course, if needed, in an emergency, a doctor to travel with me to be able to respond immediately in an emergency, twenty-four-hour nursing assistant care; and I’d have to have accommodations for at least two days before the trip and two days afterward so I could be well rested.

My girls were taking no chances with my health. They also referred the film company’s representatives to Dr. Yvonne Cagle, a NASA astronaut, medical doctor, and family friend. The film company didn’t flinch. They agreed to all of our requests and more, including a private hotel suite for me, four additional rooms for my family, tuxedos for the guys, and a so-called glam squad for the ladies. They must have really wanted me there.

My daughters accompanied me to Los Angeles for a weeklong trip, as well as four of my grandchildren—Troy, Laurie, Michele, and Michael. Two of my grandsons, Greg and Doug, were not able to make it, and “the G-6,” as our family lovingly calls my grandchildren, didn’t feel quite whole without them. Dr. Cagle, a highly regarded medical doctor and senior flight surgeon, was able to travel with us as the doctor. She is a brilliant African American woman, retired US Air Force colonel, and visiting Stanford University professor who is making her own research history at NASA. The two of us have bonded over the years, and she surprised me with news that her celebrity clothing designer, Angela Dean, who has dressed a long list of superstars (from Nancy Wilson and Patti LaBelle to Madonna) wanted to make me a special dress for the red-carpet event.

My daughters and I were honored by the designer’s generosity, and when she presented the dress to us, our jaws dropped. She had taken such meticulous care to design a dress that not only was stunning but also very practical. She chose periwinkle blue because her research showed it was a popular color during my NASA era. She added crystals to the rounded neckline and sleeves so I wouldn’t need much jewelry. She tapered the wrists to keep the sleeves in place when I raised my arm to wave. And she lined the dress in a super soft fabric to keep me warm and comfortable. She literally thought of everything, and the dress made me feel ready to meet Hollywood.

Photo credit: Eddy Chen - Getty Images
Photo credit: Eddy Chen - Getty Images

On the night of the show, which was televised around the world, the three costars of Hidden Figures stood together onstage in their beautiful evening gowns and perfect hair and faces. Taraji introduced me, and I heard her call me a “true NASA and American hero.” Yvonne, in her own exquisite gown, pushed me in a wheelchair to center stage. I may have looked calm, but my heart was beating so fast. I smiled and looked out into the audience, but I couldn’t see individual faces because of the bright lights. But I saw a collage of men in tuxedos and women in glittering gowns, filling nearly every space of that huge, multitier theater. And they were standing and applauding. All of this for me? My 98-year-old heart could barely contain the gratitude. It was too much. Finally, with some prompting from Yvonne, I managed to say four little words: “Thank you very much!”

Though there had been many West Computers, the movie focused primarily on the lives of Dot, Mary, and me. With the two of them in heaven, the publicity spotlight turned to me. The wider world wanted to know more about the hidden figure. I hadn’t been hidden from my Hampton/Newport News community—my church members at Carver Memorial Presbyterian, my sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., my friends on the faculty and staff at Hampton University, or my many neighbors through the years. But the invitations suddenly began pouring in for me to speak, attend events, accept awards, and more. At my age I was no longer able to travel long distances, and so those duties fell primarily to my daughters and grandchildren, who seemed to be traveling to a different city every week. But there was one invitation I had to accept, one journey I was most eager to take. For my ninety-ninth birthday, the library in my hometown, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was being renamed in my honor, and officials asked if I could attend the ceremony.

My family decided to make a mini reunion of the weekend, and we took some time before the ceremony to drive down Church Street, past some of the long-gone places I’d loved as a child: the Big House, the two-story white house where my family once lived; the Core family’s home across the street; the Mary McLeod Bethune Grade School for colored children, which surprisingly is now privately owned and has been redesigned as a private residence; the colored cemetery, where many of my family members are buried; and the Methodist and Baptist churches, where we’d attended Sunday services and Bible school in the summer.

I watched through the car windows and eagerly pointed out all the familiar places. My daughters were surprised that I remembered every name. Once we made our way to the library renaming ceremony, I learned there was yet another surprise for me. The library was dedicating a large room inside the building in honor of my father, who had once worked there as a custodian. The room was to be called the Joshua McKinley Coleman Community Room. Daddy would have loved it. He had been denied the full education he desired in his youth, but now the community gathering spot inside this historical place of learning would carry his name for generations to come. I could only hope that from time to time, the most curious among the congregants would wonder about the man behind the name on the door and get to discover how truly great he was.

For my one hundredth-birthday weekend, I returned home again—this time to West Virginia State University, my alma mater—for another special honor. The university unveiled a beautiful, life-size bronze statue of me and created an endowed scholarship in my name. The scholarship will assist students who are studying in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, and I hope both will inspire a love of learning and a love of math in young people long after I am gone. That kind of inspiration was what I found when I first stepped onto this campus as a freshman who’d just turned fifteen years old. We were very proud that with two PhDs on staff, the math department at West Virginia State was second to none.

When a professor told me one day a couple of years later that I’d make a good research mathematician, he gave me a goal to pursue. It was the 1930s, and I didn’t have a clue what a research mathematician was. But it didn’t matter that I was a Negro or that I was a woman. My professor believed I’d make a good research mathematician, and so I had no doubt I could figure it out someday and become one. Now, standing on this campus, forever in bronze is proof that I did just that. There was no better way to celebrate a hundred years.

Since then, the accolades have kept coming, and I’ve done my best to keep living. A reporter once asked me what I thought was my greatest accomplishment. She probably thought I’d say something about my contributions to NASA or the field of math, but I responded without hesitation, “Staying alive.” No one has been more surprised than I that I have been blessed with longevity, but how one lives is a choice. I’m reminded of a doctor’s visit when I was in my late eighties or early nineties, and he began trying to prepare me for inevitable declining health. He said I’d begin to lose my eyesight and my hearing and that those things are just part of the usual process of growing older. But I thought—and this was before the book, the movie, and all of the extra attention—that I’d lived a wonderful life. And I decided then that while time would do what time does, I would focus on living.

These past few years have been full of wonder. How could I have imagined that from ages 97 to 101, I would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (with a kiss from my favorite president); appear onstage at the Oscars; receive thirteen honorary doctorate degrees, including one from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa; have four major buildings named in my honor, including a second NASA facility; and need extra storage to house the multitude of plaques, framed certificates, and boxes of mail that would come from all over the world? Many are letters from young people, particularly girls and young women on nontraditional paths, who say my story helped them find the strength to keep going when it seemed everyone doubted them, even at times themselves.

Most recently, both Congress and the current US president have approved me to be among the upcoming recipients of the distinguished Congressional Gold Medal. I’m so excited that some of the other African American women trailblazers at NASA—Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Dr. Christine Darden, a longtime family friend—also will receive the medal. Christine is another dynamic and gifted soul, who joined NASA in 1967 as a human computer. By then, racially segregated facilities, including the West Computing Unit, had been abolished at Langley. Women still worked as computers, but the units were no longer segregated.

After working eight years as a computer, Christine was assigned to the engineering section and became one of few female aerospace engineers of any race at Langley. She was assigned to write a computer program for the sonic boom as her first task, and ever since she has done groundbreaking research and authored numerous publications on that subject. It will be such an honor to receive the award with her, Mary, and Dot. A fifth and much-deserved group medal also will be awarded on behalf of all women who worked as mathematicians and human computers at NASA.

I can only marvel at these awards. 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. And I was blessed to receive the insight of many others along the way, some who guided me and others who walked the tough terrain at my side.

It’s been a remarkable journey, but rarely a lonely one.

Excerpt from My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir by Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore. Published by Amistad. Copyright © 2021 HarperCollins.


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