Hidden Figures

by

Margot Lee Shetterly

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Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson Character Analysis

Katherine Coleman (who took on the married names Goble and Johnson) is a passionate, outspoken black mathematician who works in the Flight Research Division at the Langley Research Center. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson worked as a math teacher and briefly pursued graduate study in mathematics before joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as a computer under Dorothy Vaughan. Upon joining the segregated NACA workforce in 1953, she refuses to use the colored bathrooms or to allow prejudice to make her feel small. Though she comes up against racism more than once at the NACA, she maintains her sparkplug personality and manages to charm everyone she comes into contact with, without losing sight of her dedication to her work and her community. In one memorable event, astronaut John Glenn—who doesn’t trust the calculations performed by NASA’s new IBM computers—asks Johnson to double-check the numbers for his flight trajectory and landing, and she does so successfully. She distinguishes herself first as a computer for the Flight Research Team and later as an aerospace technologist, becoming the first woman to publish a research paper on space flight. Johnson is the one of the only living computers Shetterly features in the book and one of the few Shetterly meets with in person.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson Quotes in Hidden Figures

The Hidden Figures quotes below are all either spoken by Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson or refer to Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the William Morrow Paperbacks edition of Hidden Figures published in 2016.
Chapter 3 Quotes

…At the end of November 1943, at thirty-two years old, a second chance—one that might finally unleash her professional potential—found Dorothy Vaughan. It was disguised as a temporary furlough from her life as a teacher, a stint expected to end and deposit her back in the familiarity of Farmville when her country's long and bloody conflict was over. The Colemans' youngest daughter would eventually find the same second chance years in the future, following Dorothy Vaughan down the road to Newport News, turning the happenstance of a meeting during the Greenbrier summer into something that looked a lot more like destiny.

Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

As if trying to redeem his own professional disappointment through the achievements of one of the few students whose ability matched his impossibly high standards, Claytor maintained an unshakable belief that Katherine could meet with a successful future in mathematical research, all odds to the contrary. The prospects for a Negro woman in the field could be viewed only as dismal. If Dorothy Vaughan had been able to accept Howard University's offer of graduate admission, she likely would have been Claytor's only female classmate, with virtually no postgraduate career options outside of teaching, even with a master's degree in hand. In the 1930s, just over a hundred women in the United States worked as professional mathematicians. Employers openly discriminated against Irish and Jewish women with math degrees; the odds of a black woman encountering work in the field hovered near zero.

Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

It had always been Katherine Goble's great talent to be in the right

place at the right time.

Related Characters: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

Everything depended on Katherine's ability to hold her family together; she could not fall apart. Or perhaps she would not fall apart. There was, and always had been, about Katherine Goble a certain gravity, a preternatural self-possession … She seemed to absorb the short-term oscillations of life without being dislodged by them, as though she were actually standing back observing that both travail and elation were merely part of a much larger, much smoother curve.

Related Characters: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 17 Quotes

"Why can’t I go to the editorial meetings?” she asked the engineers. A postgame recap of the analysis wasn’t nearly as thrilling as being there for the main event. How could she not want to be a part of the discussion? They were her numbers, after all.

Related Characters: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

Many years later, Katherine Johnson would say it was just luck that of all the computers being sent to engineering groups, she was the one sent to the Flight Research Division to work with the core of the team staffed on an adventure that hadn’t yet been conceived. But simple luck is the random birthright of the hapless. When seasoned by the subtleties of accident, harmony, favor, wisdom, and inevitability, luck takes on the cast of serendipity. Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one thing encounters something else: the unexpected. It comes from being in a position to seize opportunity from the happy marriage of time, place, and chance. It was serendipity that called her in the countdown to John Glenn's flight.

Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 22 Quotes

The resonances and dissonances of the images in the book were sharpest there at Langley, ten miles from the point where African feet first stepped ashore in English North America in 1619, less than that from the sprawling oak tree where Negroes of the Virginia Peninsula convened for the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a place with deep and binding tethers to the past, Katherine Johnson, a black woman, was midwifing the future.

Related Characters: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

Katherine Johnson is the most recognized of all the NASA human computers, black or white. The power of her story is such that many accounts incorrectly credit her with being the first black woman to work as a mathematician at NASA, or the only black woman to have held the job. She is often mistakenly reported as having been sent to the "all-male" Flight Research Division, a group that included four other female mathematicians, one of whom was also black. One account implied that her calculations singlehandedly saved the Apollo 13 mission. That even Katherine Johnson's remarkable achievements can’t quite match some of the myths that have grown up around her is a sign of the strength of the vacuum caused by the long absence of African Americans from mainstream history.

Related Characters: Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Hidden Figures LitChart as a printable PDF.
Hidden Figures PDF

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson Character Timeline in Hidden Figures

The timeline below shows where the character Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson appears in Hidden Figures. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
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...this, Shetterly decides to interview the women who laid the groundwork for Langley’s integration, including Katherine Johnson. In Langley’s archives, she finds the names of around fifty black women who worked... (full context)
Chapter 3: Past is Prologue
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...Coleman watched the children. Dorothy listened to the Colemans tell stories about their oldest daughter, Katherine Coleman, who was very bright. (full context)
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Katherine and her brothers and sisters had grown up in rural southwest Virginia. Like Dorothy, Katherine... (full context)
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West Virginia, where Katherine Coleman was from, did integrate. Katherine Coleman was accepted to West Virginia University in Morgantown... (full context)
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...a teacher to accept the contract job as a computer at Langley. Just like Dorothy, Katherine will ultimately find herself at Langley, too, in a coincidence that resembles destiny. (full context)
Chapter 8: Those Who Move Forward
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In 1944, Katherine’s husband, a teacher, falls ill with fever. Because he can’t work, his school principal offers... (full context)
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Katherine loves West Virginia and she always makes sure that people know that she is from... (full context)
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During the Depression, income from Katherine’s family’s farm fell. Joshua moved the family into town and took a job as a... (full context)
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In 1933, Katherine entered West Virginia State College as a fifteen-year-old freshman with a full academic scholarship. She... (full context)
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Katherine meets her husband Jimmy while she is teaching. In the spring of 1940, she is... (full context)
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Katherine leaves graduate school to raise her child with Jimmy. She wonders sometimes what would have... (full context)
Chapter 9: Breaking Barriers
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Dorothy’s husband Howard Vaughan continues to work at the Greenbrier Hotel alongside Joshua Coleman, Katherine’s father. Dorothy and Howard have two more children, but the children move with Dorothy to... (full context)
Chapter 12: Serendipity
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Katherine Johnson is known for being always in the right place at the right time. In... (full context)
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Katherine and her husband, Jimmy, have three children. Katherine decides to take the job. Though she... (full context)
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Katherine starts working at Langley in 1953. In the interim year, she works as a substitute... (full context)
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Katherine ignores him and eats her lunch. The outside world is still segregated at this point,... (full context)
Chapter 13: Turbulence
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 Katherine’s familiarity with higher-level math makes her an important figure in the Flight Research Division. Her... (full context)
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Katherine can’t believe her good fortune in getting paid to do math. She also likes her... (full context)
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Like other middle-class black families, Jimmy and Katherine move out of Newsome Park, buying a house in a World War II-era neighborhood. But... (full context)
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Katherine continues to raise her daughters alone, preparing them for college. She also continues not to... (full context)
Chapter 14: Angle of Attack
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...Black engineers face worse racism than the women, unable to rely on their charms like Katherine does or on the group support provided for women by leaders like Dorothy Vaughan. (full context)
Chapter 16: What a Difference a Day Makes
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...if the Russian foray into space marks the end of American global dominance. From where Katherine stands, however, Sputnik looks like a new beginning for the NACA. With aerial dominance assured... (full context)
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...their creativity. Flight Research works with PARD (the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division) to develop rockets. Katherine is excited to use her talents and potential to push American flight to its next... (full context)
Chapter 17: Outer Space
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...for reasons that include national defense, global prestige, and the opportunity to expand human knowledge. Katherine and her colleagues at Langley try to learn everything they can about space, using their... (full context)
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Katherine gets the chance to advance in her career by preparing charts and equations for space... (full context)
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Katherine sits with the engineers outside these meetings and asks many, many questions about the scope... (full context)
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...to do it. The most ambitious women have to strategize to advance in their careers. Katherine’s confidence drives her to fight until she is finally allowed to join the editorial meetings... (full context)
Chapter 18: With All Deliberate Speed
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Katherine, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan push their children to excel in school and concentrate on... (full context)
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At work, Katherine tackles Project Mercury with her colleagues by breaking it down into its constituent parts. Airplanes... (full context)
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Katherine helps calculate rocket trajectories into space. The workload is heavy. She works with her team... (full context)
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The Space Task Group completes its work. Katherine gets to complete and put her name on the research report in 1959. Her paper... (full context)
Chapter 19: Model Behavior
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...service. She is able to do her job because of women like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Hoover, who demonstrated that black women are capable of the highest level... (full context)
Chapter 20: Degrees of Freedom
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...NASA needs many more resources than Langley can handle, and so they move to Houston. Katherine stays in Virginia. (full context)
Chapter 21: Out of the Past, the Future
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Astronauts resist computers because they are new. Glenn asks Katherine Johnson to double check the numbers that will send him into space. She is the... (full context)
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...had before. West Computing no longer exists, but Dorothy Vaughan works with the new IBMs. Katherine Johnson plays the most immediate role in human spaceflight, but black engineers throughout the organization... (full context)
Chapter 22: America is for Everybody
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...black employees feel welcome. In 1967, Christine Mann takes a job at Langley and meets Katherine Johnson. Katherine continues to be very active in community service. She also continues to work... (full context)
Chapter 23: To Boldly Go
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In 1969, Katherine Johnson attends a sorority conference in the Poconos while also watching the Apollo 11 astronauts... (full context)
Epilogue
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Katherine Johnson continues to work with NASA, distinguishing herself again during the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis,... (full context)