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Katherine G. Johnson: NASA Mathematician and Dedicated Presbyterian

March 15, 2017
Katherine Johnson sits at her desk with a globe--or ‘Celestial Training Device.’ (Photo courtesy of NASA)

After viewing the groundbreaking movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of three African American women mathematicians, I found myself searching for any and all information I could locate about the real life women the movie is based on.

I started with a fantastic book written by Margot Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that Katherine G. Johnson, one of the mathematicians featured in the movie, is a longtime member of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia. While searching through that congregation's records here at the Presbyterian Historical Society, I came across a church bulletin from 1975 that was created to celebrate Carver Memorial’s 83rd anniversary. In this bulletin, I found the following photographs that highlight Katherine Johnson’s active role in supporting Carver Memorial. 

Katherine G. Johnson, 1975. Photograph (Church Officers). Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church, Virginia. “The Harvest of Christian Involvement through the Years (Our 83rd Anniversary),” 1975. Newport News, Virginia. [PAM. FOL. BX 9211 V83607 C305 1975]

Here we see Katherine Johnson as a Church Officer standing in the back row.

Katherine G. Johnson, 1975. Photograph (Senior Choir).

Here we see Katherine Johnson serving in the Senior Choir on the Second Row, second from the right.

Katherine G. Johnson, 1975. Photograph (Commissioner to the 187th General Assembly).

And here we see Katherine Johnson in her role as Commissioner to the 187th General Assembly where she served on the finance committee, a fitting place for a mathematician.

At ninety-nine years old, Katherine Johnson is less active with her church today but remains a dedicated Presbyterian. Looking at her life through the lens of Carver Memorial provides a glimpse into the fullness and richness of her life. For those of us who discovered Katherine Johnson’s story through Hidden Figures, she has become a beacon of excellence and possibility. I imagine that the members of Carver Memorial have always treasured and respected her as an example of what is achievable through hard work and dedication.  

For more information about the type of work Commissioners perform for the General Assembly, check out this helpful video created by the PC(USA): Presbyterian Governance Comes to Life.

For more information about Katherine Johnson and her life with the Presbyterian Church, read Gregg Brekke’s article for the Presbyterian News Service: Real Life Hidden Figures Mathematician Longtime Presbyterian.