Aug. 26, 1918

Katherine G. Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Credit: Wikipedia

Katherine G. Johnson, a pioneer in space missions, was born in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. She began college at age 15 and became the first Black woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University in Morgantown in 1938. 

Johnson became a “human computer” for NASA, with work so accurate that when NASA switched to computers, they would have her check the computer’s calculations for errors. She calculated the trajectories for space flights, including the first American in space, Alan Shepard, John Glenn’s orbit of earth, the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and the Apollo 13’s safe return to earth. In fact, Glenn was so concerned about the accuracy of these new computers that he made sure Johnson checked all of the math. 

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Taraji P. Henson portrayed her in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures”, which told the story of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who worked as “human computers.” 

Just months before she died in 2020, NASA dedicated a West Virginia facility in her honor, and Northrop Grumman named its cargo spacecraft “S.S. Katherine Johnson” to recognize her critical contributions to spaceflight. The University of the District of Columbia has created The Katherine G. Johnson Math Teacher Training Institute, which is partnering with the Southern Initiative Algebra Project to implement programs for teachers who teach STEM-related courses in the public schools there.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.