Ever since Hidden Figure’s incredible commercial and critical success West Virginia University has made it its mission to let everyone know that Katherine Johnson, one of the black mathematicians the movie centers on, attended WVU. The university has time and again tried to take credit for Johnson’s achievements, despite the fact that she only attended for a session.
Blatant misinformation has caused people to think that Johnson graduated from WVU. The WVU Admissions account tweeted this.
Johnson was also the first woman to desegregate the WVU graduate school. This DA article mentions the racism faced at NASA but nothing about WVU. Being the first black woman attending graduate school it isn’t far fetched to believe that she faced some sort of racism during her short time here.
Back in February two students created a tribute to Johnson on campus. I got in contact with one of them, Morgan King, and asked them a couple of questions.
Did you know that Johnson was only here for one session (aprox. a semester today)?
Yes, I did know she only attended the university for a semester. It mentioned in the Hidden Figures novel that she had to leave for personal reasons related to her family, whereas it was difficult for women of that time to pursue higher education, especially a graduate degree, given the expectations of society on women in the household.
How do you feel about WVU taking credit for Johnson’s success (constantly featuring her on social media as a WVU product) despite her short time here?
I think it is important to feature Johnson’s successes as a West Virginian. Though she was at WVU a short while, she grew up as a child in the state. West Virginians are all mountaineers at heart whether they attended the school for four, 1 or no years. As the land grant institution of the state, it is important for WVU to recognize the success of West Virginians. Whether the university should treat her as a WVU product to the extent they may is less of a concern than not raising her up before. She contributed so much and received so little recognition for so long, that her features through the university is long overdue.
You said in the WVU Today article that “Honoring Ms. Johnson in the department where her male peers would have studied has a lot of symbolism in it.” What kind of symbolism do you mean? Is her success and value measured conditionally to men?
The short time she was here she studied mathematics. Though that department is not in the engineering college, there is a NASA office within the building along with a field Aeronautical Engineering, that can be directly linked to the type of work she and her peers did. Her supervisors were primarily engineers, and she faced adversity in gaining respect from them. She deserved to be honored in the department where it was so difficult for women, particularly women of color, to gain access to classes. Her success and value, I would argue, is measured separately. The adversity she faced while accomplishing such incredible work takes her to a much higher level of success and value relative to her male peers.
You seem to relate to Johnson because of your backgrounds as women in STEM, but you can’t divorce the fact that she was a black woman facing an extra layer of discrimination that you do not. How do you feel being white and being the face of this tribute to her?
She undoubtedly faced discrimination I could never know. Being white and a “face” to this tribute has been conflicting, because too much attention has been brought to myself and Vannah who initiated the tribute. The purpose behind doing it was to honor her for her under recognized contributions in the face of adversity, then in turn too much focus turned to us straying from the project’s initial purpose. Our goal was to open the dialogue about her on campus, because it was astonishing that there was nothing significant for her here.
Only recently has WVU been attempting to reclaim its ties with Johnson. WVU gave her an honorary doctorate in 2016. The website states that “Recipients are not necessarily graduates of the awarding institution; rather, the school often views the degree as an opportunity to establish ties with a prominent person.” Just last week it was announced that she was one of the four people inducted into The Academy of Distinguished Alumni. The article states that it’s “one of the highest honors awarded to graduates of West Virginia University.”
These all feel like attempts to cop diversity points off a black woman’s success that had little to do with the university. Undoubtedly, Johnson deserves all the recognition she is getting, but when we look at the circumstances of some of this it seems to be more about looking superficially diverse than genuinely celebrating her achievements.