In 1944, Katherine’s husband, a teacher, falls ill with fever. Because he can’t work, his school principal offers his yearlong teaching contact to Katherine instead. Katherine had graduated from West Virginia State Institute in 1937 and then had taken a teaching job at the Marion school in Virginia. A year after she left, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed suit against the state of Virginia for equal teacher pay. Alston v. Norfolk went to the US Supreme Court, which ordered Virginia to bring black teachers’ salaries up to the white teachers’ level. The decision passed too late for Katherine, however, who had to leave Virginia and go to Morgantown, West Virginia to make more money.
Katherine is able to obtain a teaching job because her husband is too sick to take on the work, but she also doesn’t get paid what she should simply because of her timing. Many of the circumstances that determine the course of her life are out of her control. As was the case for many black women at the time, her fortune depends on luck, timing and, often, unfortunately, the whims of white men in positions of power.
Katherine loves West Virginia and she always makes sure that people know that she is from there, rather than Virginia. West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the Civil War to join the Union. Though it was not a bastion of equality (West Virginia was still segregated), West Virginia offered its black citizens slightly more space and dignity than Virginia did. Katherine’s father, Joshua, was a math whiz who helped engineer Katherine’s academic success, even though he only made it to the sixth grade.
Here Shetterly explains where Katherine came from, identifying two of the most important elements of her character: her love for and dedication to her roots in West Virginia and the support she received from her family.
During the Depression, income from Katherine’s family’s farm fell. Joshua moved the family into town and took a job as a bellman at the Greenbrier, the country’s most exclusive resort. (It was here that Dorothy Vaughan’s husband, Howard, and Joshua would later become friends.) Katherine also worked in the hotel as a personal maid to wealthy guests, cleaning, washing, ironing, and setting out clothes. At one point, a French countess Katherine was serving discovered that Katherine understood French and told the administration; after that, Katherine worked in the kitchen with the resort’s Parisian chef. The next summer, she was put to work in the hotel’s antique store, rather than as a maid. There she met the brother of President William Howard Taft and taught him his Roman numerals.
Starting when Katherine was young, people with the power to help her tended to be charmed by her and to recognize her intelligence and talents. They put her in situations where she was able to succeed. Because she was black and a woman, her brilliance and her knack for displaying it in front of the right people would turn out to be a major advantage, helping her to overcome many of the obstacles racial prejudice and gender discrimination put in her way.
In 1933, Katherine entered West Virginia State College as a fifteen-year-old freshman with a full academic scholarship. She worked under math professor William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor. Claytor created advanced math classes just for her and he encouraged her to become a research mathematician. Claytor himself wanted to join the country’s top math departments, but found his options limited to a job at West Virginia State College because he was black. He tried to push Katherine forward so she could take advantage of opportunities he hadn’t been offered.
Claytor represents only one of the many brilliant mathematical minds that were never able to fully contribute to the field because of institutional racism and discrimination. Because he wants to make sure Katherine doesn’t meet the same fate he did, he does everything he can to ensure her progress, an example of how members of the black scientific community propped one another up to make up for the lack of institutional support.
Katherine meets her husband Jimmy while she is teaching. In the spring of 1940, she is invited to be one of the first students to integrate the all-white West Virginia University by joining the math department. She enrolls in the 1940 summer session and is accepted by the white student body, but she drops out at the end of the summer session after she discovers she is pregnant.
Even though Katherine is brilliant enough to be invited to West Virginia University, the expectation that she would start a family had to come first. In this way, her gender holds her back from pursuing a career as much as her race.
Katherine leaves graduate school to raise her child with Jimmy. She wonders sometimes what would have happened if she’d continued to pursue a career as a research mathematician, but she is happy to work as a schoolteacher. Meanwhile, in Hampton Virginia, Dorothy Vaughan is paving the way for women like Katherine to help propel aeronautics research into the future.
Katherine and Dorothy, though they don’t yet know it, have destinies that are connected across time and space, with Dorothy’s success helping to set the foundation for Katherine’s, another indication of how Shetterly’s hidden figures helped pave the way for one another.