Katherine Johnson is known for being always in the right place at the right time. In 1952, twelve years after she leaves graduate school to become a teacher, she attends the wedding of her sister-in-law. At the wedding, Katherine meets Eric Epps, the community park director at Newsome Park in Newport news. Eric tells her about the jobs available at Langley Field, in Hampton.
Katherine’s luck depends, yes, on chance, but also on the support of her extended circle of family and friends. This includes community leader Eric Epps, who helped welcome Dorothy to Newsome Park when she moved in. It’s these forces combined—good timing and the support of her extended circle— along with her gift for math that put her on the road to success.
Katherine and her husband, Jimmy, have three children. Katherine decides to take the job. Though she is working as a teacher, she is very ambitious and misses her work in mathematics. Jimmy gets a job in Newport News as a painter in a shipyard. They enroll the girls in school.
And yet, though luck, coincidence, community and good timing all play a role, it’s ultimately Katherine’s courage and ambition—and her desire to support her family— that lead her to Langley.
Katherine starts working at Langley in 1953. In the interim year, she works as a substitute math teacher at a local high school and meets families in the area. She is involved in the local chapters of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and her church, Carver Presbyterian. At the NACA, Katherine works an entry-level job filling out data sheets under the supervision of Dorothy Vaughan. Then she is asked to join the Flight Research Division, one of the most powerful groups in the laboratory. When she sits down at her new desk, the white man next to her gets up and walks away.
Katherine’s trajectory resembles that of Dorothy and Mary—she teaches, devotes much of her time to community service, then starts in the temp computing pool at Langley before finding a place for herself within the larger organization. Like Dorothy and Mary, Katherine also learns that her intelligence and skill won’t protect her from her white colleagues’ racism, indicating that the move for equality among races at Langley is progressing slowly.
Katherine ignores him and eats her lunch. The outside world is still segregated at this point, and even at Langley the black computers still have to use separate bathrooms. But some racial prejudice is yielding to pressure from international forces. Katherine knows that if she is going to avoid being chased out of Langley, she will have to mount a charm offensive, by being impeccably dressed, well-spoken, patriotic, and charming. Katherine’s charm works—the engineer who had walked away from her desk two weeks before becomes her friend after they discover that they are both from West Virginia.
In addition to doing their jobs, the black employees at Langley have to take on the extra work of negotiating the racial boundaries still in place at the laboratory. They invent strategies that will allow them to succeed in spite of the organization’s deeply rooted prejudice. Katherine has the social skills necessary to make a difficult, almost impossible to navigate situation, tenable.