We were poor but classy, say daughters of Nasa genius
The daughters of the iconic mathematician flew into SA to collect her honorary doctorate
The daughters of African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson says she has always been a perfectionist.
On Monday, Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore received an honorary doctorate degree bestowed by the University of Johannesburg on their mother’s behalf.
Their life in the city of Hampton, Virginia, was that of an average “poor” black family.
“We were born in the 1940s. It was a different time, and the expectation was that as a woman of colour [your job is to] serve someone. She wanted us to be ready. So she pushed us to get an education just as her parents educated them,” said Katherine.
Both sisters have obtained master’s degrees.
At home they experienced her as both a mother and the mathematician. “She taught us to cook, to sew and how to make a bed. She was always a perfectionist, so the bed had to be done right,” Joylette said.
One thing that stood out for them was how every morning their mother was up, dressed and ready to go to work, regardless of the political and social space they found themselves in.
“She never came home complaining. In those days, you knew your lane. She was a lady, always. She demanded respect and received the same. We learned the same for her.
“Do we still experience bigotry? Yes. Do we still have people looking at us like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Yes. But she taught us to be flexible. We were poor, but poor people with class.”
Johnson’s philosophy when it came to parenting was that every child should have music, a pet, [and be involved in a] sport for discipline and socialising.
The icon “never looked down on anyone except for lazy people”. Katherine added: “She used to say that if you don’t like maths you are either lazy or had a bad teacher.”
Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Her calculations were key to the success of the Apollo Moon landing programme and the start of the Space Shuttle programme.
She continues to receive accolades for her contribution to the history of Nasa spaceflights projects.
Her story and that of her fellow mathematicians, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, was recorded in 2016 book Hidden Figures and the Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name.
She expanded her territory by teaching, co-authoring 26 scientific papers, and has received Nasa’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award as well as Nasa’s Apollo Group Achievement Award.