In the movie “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson is known as the “girl with the numbers,” a mathematical genius who helped launch astronauts like John Glenn into space during her work at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. Taraji P. Henson of the Fox TV drama, “Empire,” plays Johnson in the movie. But to her youngest daughter, Katherine Moore, she was known simply as Mom, the woman who taught her and her two sisters life skills such as how to sew. “You read about stuff like this,” said Moore, who lives in Greensboro, of the attention surrounding her mother with the release of the movie. “I knew my mother worked at NASA. Growing up we knew she was smart. But she was Mom.”
“Hidden Figures,” which has topped the box office for two weeks straight, details the contributions of three African American female mathematicians to America’s space program: Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer portrays the late Vaughan, while singer Janelle Monae plays the late Jackson in the movie. The women, who were referred to as human computers, calculated flight trajectories that launched astronauts into space, including Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.
The movie is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, a native of Hampton.
“It was wonderful,” Moore said of the movie. “I mean, I’ve seen it about four times now and I cry every time. You see something different each time.” And even though her story — one many people were unaware of until now — is finally being told on the big screen, Moore said her 98-year-old mother still doesn’t get what the fuss is all about. “She says, ‘I was just doing my job,” Moore said. ‘I don’t know what they say I did. But if they said it, it’s awfully nice.’ ”
Johnson grew up in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
She graduated high school at 14 and graduated from West Virginia State College at age 18. She was also the first African American female to integrate West Virginia University. But beneath her brilliance was modesty that kept some — including Moore — in the dark about how important her work at NASA really was. Moore said it wasn’t until her freshman year at Bennett College that she realized how big a part her mother played in the space program. She was in the library when she saw a “life-sized” picture of her mother on the front of the Pittsburgh Courier.
Moore said her mother never bothered to tell her she was going to be in the paper. A framed copy of that edition is among the mementos she keeps in her Greensboro home. Later would come invites for her mother to speak at schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, inclusion in books about female scientists and other awards and honorary degrees.
Rarely did Johnson bring her daughters along to see her accomplishments celebrated. They’d find out afterwards, Moore said. “It took awhile for us to realize, look, we’re going to have to find out ourselves what our mother is getting credit for,” she said. Johnson, who had moved to Virginia to become a teacher before she joined NASA, was initially a member of the administration’s West Computer Group, made up of black females denoted as “colored computers” during those days of segregation.
But her expertise in analytic geometry propelled her to the space task group, which was comprised of white males who did not welcome her with open arms.
Moore recalled her mother saying that the men could talk the theory, but the women could do the math. She said her mother could envision what the group needed as it plotted putting a man in space, and was able to translate it into math. “She always seemed to be ahead of her time,” Moore said. “She always seemed to have answers for problems nobody else could solve.” But her work didn’t come easy in the Jim Crow South. There was no bathroom for blacks in the building where Johnson worked, so she had to trek half a mile across the NASA campus. The men she worked with didn’t even want her drinking from their coffee pot, instead designating a “colored” one for her.
And at home, Johnson was caring for a sick husband. Moore’s father, James Goble, died of inoperable brain cancer at 43, when she and her sisters were in high school. Moore said any drama her mother faced at work came second to her husband. “So what was important in those days wasn’t what she did at the job. It was how he was when she came home,” Moore said. “And when I think about that, and the fact that her work was her balm because she enjoyed it, and yet she was everything to my father.”
Moore described the movie as “very accurate.” She attended the premiere in New York, and her mother got a private screening in Virginia. Moore was also pleased with Shetterly’s novel, calling the author a “bubbly little young thing” who was easy for her mother to talk to.
Johnson, who retired from NASA in 1986 after 33 years, lives in a retirement village in Virginia with her second husband, Jim. The couple is celebrating 58 years of marriage this year.
Moore said her mother’s mind and will are still strong, but her body is not. So it’s been the job of Moore and her sister Joylette to shepherd Johnson to the many appearances required for a highly anticipated movie — including a photo shoot with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz for the September 2016 issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. And last year, NASA dedicated the 40,000-square-foot Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at Langley Research Center. Moore and her sister serve as their mother’s glam squad, doing her makeup and nails for these special events. “We’ve just had some experiences with her this last year that have been monumental,” Moore said.
She’s urging people to see the movie, but not because it’s about her mother. “We say it’s not about Mama so much as it’s about women,” Moore said. “It’s about the gender gap and how they overcame during those horrible years.”
Mona Gillis Edwards is also urging people to see the movie. She’s finding many connections to it in her own life.
Edwards, who attends church with Moore at Greensboro’s St. James Presbyterian, grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater region. She’s also a graduate of the University of Virginia, which is where Shetterly attended college. Yet the story of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson had escaped her. “There were certain careers that you always heard about, which are good,” Edwards said. “It’s just that you didn’t also hear the stories about African American women excelling in math and science.”
Edwards said she was pleased to see a diverse audience in the theater when she viewed the movie. “I think it’s important for all of us — especially for African American children — to have role models and to know history and to know the accomplishments of other African Americans,” she said. “Because it lets you know what’s possible, it lets you know what can happen when you prepare yourself, work hard and are persistent in asking for what you want, not accepting no for an answer and thinking beyond what you see today.”
Like their mother, Moore and her sister Joylette became teachers. Moore retired early as a guidance counselor in 2003, when she moved from New Jersey to Greensboro to care for a sick uncle. Johnson’s other daughter, Constance, died in 2010. Moore said her mother enjoyed every day of her job at NASA. But she was still a teacher at heart. “She’s so humble, and although things seemed to have come easy to her, she always wanted everybody else to know everything she knew,” Moore said. “So she was always a helping person. She always tutored. She never charged kids.”
Moore recalled her family had a friend who lived down the street from them and whose daughter was failing math. With Johnson’s help, the daughter got an “A” on the exam.
“She’s always for some reason said, ‘If you don’t do well in math, normally it’s because you had the wrong teacher, you know, or the teacher didn’t like math or your parent didn’t like math and somebody told you it was hard. “She never told us math was hard, and so all of us were good math students,” Moore said of herself and her sisters. “We took all the math courses. But her expectation was that we would do well — in everything. So we were all honor students.”
And despite her time-consuming work at NASA, Moore said her mother also found time to hold leadership roles in her church, as well as in her beloved sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.
But one of the most important lessons Moore said her mother, as well as Vaughan and Jackson, taught by example was that a sense of community can get you through tough times.
“When bad things happen, if you let that overtake you, then it sort of stifles that forward motion,” Moore said. “They didn’t stop. Every time they hit a wall, they found another way by sticking together.”