Looking back at Black History Month in
February, I will include the story of one of the
greats in our nation’s history. Looking forward
to March, National Social Work Month, I will
include the story of someone you may not have heard of. She
is great as well. Greatness exists in the famous and those who
work tirelessly, and are often not fully recognized, to improve
our world. Here are two stories of greatness.
From Wikipedia: Creola Katherine Johnson (née Coleman; August
26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was an American mathematician
whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a
NASA employee were critical to the success
of the first and subsequent US-crewed
spaceflights. During her 35-year career at
NASA and its predecessor NACA, she earned
a reputation for mastering complex manual
calculations and helped pioneer the use of
computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her
“historical role as one of the first African American women to work
as a NASA scientist”.
Johnson’s work included calculating trajectories, launch windows,
and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights,
including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in
space, and John Glenn, the first American in orbit, and rendezvous
paths for the Apollo Lunar Module and command module on flights
to the Moon. Her calculations were also essential to the beginning
of the Space Shuttle program, and she worked on plans for a mission
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the
Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, she was presented the
Silver Snoopy Award by NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin and a
NASA Group Achievement Award. She was portrayed by Taraji P.
Henson as a lead character in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 2019,
Johnson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Katherine Johnson was born as Creola Katherine Coleman on
August 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was
the youngest of four children. Her mother was a teacher and her
father was a lumberman, farmer, handyman, and worked at the
Johnson showed strong mathematical abilities from an early age.
Because Greenbrier County did not offer schooling for African
American children past the eighth grade, the Colemans arranged for
their children to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. This
school was on the campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC).
Johnson was enrolled when she was ten years old. The family split
their time between Institute during the school year and White
Sulphur Springs in the summer.
After graduating from high school at 14, Johnson enrolled at West
Virginia State, a historically black college. As a student, she took
every math course offered by the college. Many professors
mentored her. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at age 18,
with degrees in mathematics and French. She took a teaching job at
a black public school in Marion, Virginia.
In 1939, after marrying her first husband, James Goble, she left
her teaching job and enrolled in a graduate math program. She
quit one year later after becoming pregnant and chose to focus on
her family life. She was the first African American woman to attend
graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West
Virginia. Through WVSC’s president, Dr. John W. Davis, she became
one of three African American students, and the only woman,
selected to integrate the graduate school after the 1938 United
States Supreme Court ruling Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. The
court ruled that states that provided public higher education to
white students also had to provide it to Black students, to be
satisfied either by establishing Black colleges and universities or by
admitting Black students to previously white-only universities.
Johnson decided on a career as a research mathematician,
although this was a difficult field for African Americans and women
to enter. The first jobs she found were in teaching. At a family
gathering in 1952, a relative mentioned that the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring mathematicians. At
the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, NACA hired African
American mathematicians as well as whites for their Guidance and
Navigation Department. Johnson accepted a job offer from the
agency in June 1953.
At first Johnson worked in a pool of women performing math
calculations. She has referred to the women in the pool as virtual
“computers who wore skirts.” Their main job was to read the data
from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise
mathematical tasks. Then one day, she (and a colleague) were
temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Her
knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male
bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me
to the pool.” While the racial and gender barriers were always
there, she says she ignored them. She was assertive, asking to be
included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before).
She simply told people she had done the work and that she
NACA disbanded the colored computing pool in 1958 when the
agency was superseded by NASA, which adopted digital
computers. Although the installation was desegregated, forms of
discrimination were still pervasive. Johnson recalled that era: “We
needed to be assertive as women in those days–assertive and
aggressive–and the degree to which we had to in the new
In 1961, her work helped to ensure that Alan Shepard’s
Freedom 7 Mercury capsule would be found quickly after landing,
using the accurate trajectory that had been established.
From 1958 until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an
aerospace technologist, moving during her career to the Spacecraft
Controls Branch. She calculated the trajectory for the May 5, 1961
space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also
calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.
Sheplotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic
failures. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to
calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson
to verify the computer’s numbers; Glenn had asked for her specifically
and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations. Author
Margot Lee Shetterly stated, “So the astronaut who became a hero,
looked to this Black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as
one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.”
Johnson later worked directly with digital computers. Her ability
and reputation for accuracy helped to establish confidence quickly
after landing, using the accurate trajectory that had been established.
She also helped to calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11
flight to the Moon. In 1970, Johnson worked on the Apollo 13 Moon
mission. When the mission was aborted, her work on backup
procedures and charts helped set a safe path for the crew’s return to
Earth, creating a one-star observation system that would allow
astronauts to determine their location with accuracy. Later in her
career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth
Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.
Johnson spent her later years encouraging students to enter the
fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Meet Ohio’s 2020 “School Social Worker of the Year” –By Micaela
Marshall, Cleveland (Spectrum)
BEDFORD, Ohio — COVID-19 has presented new challenges for
families and students. Increased mental health issues and job loss
have made basic needs unattainable for some. Because of this, school
social workers may be more vital now than ever amid the pandemic.
One of them is Bedford City School District’s Faith Gordon, who is the
2020 “Ohio School Social Worker of the Year.”
She pulls from her own life experiences in order to connect to
families going through hard times.
Gordon is one of the first social workers in the Bedford City School
District. “I think that question will be spot on to say who can help
them get over that hurdle,” she said while planning a social/emotional
lesson with an 8th grade school counselor. Planning lessons with
school counselors is just one part of the job description. She does
home visits, too.
“We all fail at some point. It’s what we do. How do we get back up?
How do we keep going? How do we get over those challenges?”
Helping teens is her passion, and social work is her calling. She’s
been in this line of work for 13 years.
A team of school social workers and mental health therapists were
hired in the district last year. This is the second year Gordon has
worked with students in both the middle and high school. “I can touch
every student life,” she said.
In-person learning started back up February 1 in Bedford, and
Gordon said her favorite part of the day is saying hello in the hallway.
“I miss you,” Gordon said to a student. “I miss you, too,” they replied.
Helping families in need comes naturally because she’s been there.
Gordon was a teen mom. Her daughter was a teen mom. Her twin
sons have learning disabilities, and her oldest son passed away after
years of mental health and behavioral issues. “I’ve walked in your
shoes. I’m not just saying it because a book or because of
something someone told me. I’ve actually lived those
experiences,” she said.
Her journey to social work actually began when she was a
hair stylist and salon owner. While sitting in the chair, younger
clients would open up to her about problems in school. She felt
compelled to help, and she went back to college to earn her
master’s degree “to actually prevent drop out, to try to help
those that were becoming homeless, to try to provide more
understanding of mental health and what it looks like in the
classroom,” said Gordon.
Gordon earned the “Ohio School Social Worker of the Year”
award in 2020. She credits the honor to programs she rolled
ou t that led to a decrease in expulsions and suspensions by
addressing the root causes of why kids act out. “It really helped
me to know that, ‘Hey keep going. You’re doing something
great. You’re helping someone,’” she said.
A new community resource room just opened up for families
who may need extra help in the Bedford City School District.
Gordon is one of the school social workers who oversee the
room. The community resource room is actually two rooms,
and inside, you’ll find free clothes, coats, shoes, school supplies,
hygiene products, food, and even a washer and dryer. The
room was made possible through CARES Act funding and
community donations from organizations including the National
Council of Jewish Women. Currently, these community
resource rooms are open by appointment only from 9 a.m. to 3
p.m. on Wednesdays to district families. The hope is to soon be
able to expand the services so that all of the resources can be
available to the entire community.
In conclusion, let us look back at history to understand
and honor the greats but also look forward and look for
greatness and those who work so hard in our
communities, in our neighborhoods, and schools and
meeting places. There are many forms of greatness but
for a society to thrive we must honor those who serve in
the front lines to support those who have been
marginalized and in the trenches where we all must work
to remedy the inequities of the past.
for the Diversity Committee