What a Black History Shero Can Teach Nonprofits

What a Black History Shero Can Teach Nonprofits

Celebrating a Black History Shero!


By Heyward Watson


This month we celebrate the contributions that Black People have made to the history of the United States of America. Black History month is full of heroes and sheroes. I want to review the contributions of Katherine Johnson and what her legacy means to board leaders at community impact organizations.


Katherine Johnson and a group of all black women mathematicians worked in the West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Langley. Katherine Johnson spent 33 years at the agency, which became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


The Trailblazer


Mrs. Johnson was a trailblazer from a young age.


Her curiosity with numbers vaulted her ahead in school, resulting in her entering high school by age 10 and graduating at 14 years old. She attended high school classes on historically black West Virginia State College campus. Katherine enrolled in the college’s math curriculum, where she moved through the mathematical program quickly. She was able to complete a mentorship with W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third Black person to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at that time. Katherine graduated in 1937 with the highest honors and taught at a black public school in Virginia.


West Virginia State decided to integrate its graduate schools in 1939 quietly; the College’s President, Dr. John W. Davis, selected two black men and Katherine as the first black students to the flagship school. She left school after the first quarter to start a family with her husband. Katherine returned to teaching when her three daughters were older, and in 1952 a relative informed her of open opportunities at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NASA predecessor agency) Langley laboratory. She began work during the summer of 1953.


Taking Flight


Katherine went on to work on part of the mathematics for a 1958 document, Notes on Space Technology, which the engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division used to present a series of lectures about Space Travel. She completed trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission known as Freedom 7.


In 1960 Katherine became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report she co-authored with engineer Ted Skopinski. In 1962, Astronaut John Glenn called upon her to verify the complex mathematics of the orbital flight, which IBM computers had computed for his Friendship 7 mission from takeoff to splashdown.


Katherine Johnson’s work included significant contributions to space exploration; she worked on the Apollo Lunar Module, the Space Shuttle, the Earth Resources Technology Satellite and authored or co-authored 26 research reports. She retired in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the age of 96 from President Barack Obama.


An Inspiration for Board Governance


This Black History Shero story reminds me of one of the six outcomes discussed in the Board Governance model of Board Chairs Academy. The outcome states that the work of governance is to “mobilize an efficient work process for paid and unpaid people to serve the community in an equitable, accountable and inclusive manner.”


Kathrine Johnson as a black woman during the time of the “Jim Crow” era, had bosses who understood that Katherine’s skills needed to be utilized in a manner that allowed her to serve the interests of the United States of America in an equitable, accountable, and inclusive manner.


In difficult times, we at Third Sector Company believe nonprofits should emulate the utilization of talents in their communities similarly.


Join us for a preview of Board Chairs Academy, the unique six-month online learning and community-building experience for nonprofit board members, on February 18!


Heyward Watson
Senior Strategist – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
Third Sector Company, Inc.


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Photo by NASA

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