Armstrong: At 98, 'Hidden Figures' inspiration is alive and has local ties

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Sisters Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore flank their mother, Katherine G. Johnson, whose life was the inspiration for the film "Hidden Figures."

Katherine G. Johnson is my new sheroe. I walked out of the hit film, Hidden Figures in which Taraji P. Henson portrays her real-life story, hyped to find out even more about this remarkable "human computer" as Johnson was called during her early days at NASA.

What became of the former math teacher after astronaut John Glenn specifically requested her help before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth back in 1962? Had Johnson, who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, lived long enough to learn about the Fox Searchlight project and see herself portrayed on the big screen?

I'm happy to report that not only is Johnson alive at age 98 and living in Virginia in a retirement community, but that she also has a daughter who lives nearby in Mount Laurel, N.J. And although her eyesight and hearing are failing, she has sat through Hidden Figures three times and enjoyed it. The film beat out Rogue One: A Star Wars Story last week and earned $22.8 million.

Joylette Hylick said her mother has been deluged with requests for interviews since the release of Hidden Figures and "is tired."

So, Hylick declared a media "hiatus" for her mother.

But after some prodding, Hylick agreed to talk to me about her mother's life and what she thinks of the movie about Johnson and other black female mathematicians who helped launch NASA's modern-day space program.

"I told her, 'Momma, do you know your movie was No. 1?" Hylick said. "She said, 'that's great.' But she's not looking for [fame]...this is new for us."

"They are hidden no more," Hylick said of Johnson and the other "human computers" portrayed in the film by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.

Born in 1918, Johnson grew up fascinated by numbers. She excelled in the racially-segregated schools she attended and graduated from high school when she was just 14.

Most blacks didn't attend school past the eighth grade back then. But she went on to West Virginia State University, a small black college, where she continued to excel, taking every math class available, according to the book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. (William Morrow, 2016). When she had gone through all of the math classes at the college, others were created specifically for her.

"I don't believe that she felt she was gifted. She would just know more than her peers or learn it sooner," explained Hylick, 76. "She would ask questions, and the teacher would say, 'Katherine, now why are you asking that? Because I know you know the answer.' And she would say, 'I'm asking it because you know they won't.' It wasn't to put herself out there. It was to help [her peers] get the help they needed so that they could understand what the teacher was trying to say."

Johnson taught math and later went to work at NASA, which had taken the unusual step of hiring African American women to work as "human computers." Jim Crow was king, so Johnson initially was assigned to an all-black group of mathematicians. Two weeks in, she got plucked out to join a team of engineers, working on the Space Task Force, which at the time was in a fierce space race with Russia. Glenn, himself, requested that Johnson – he referred to her as "the girl" – personally recheck the calculations before his epic Friendship 7 mission when he became the first American to orbit the Earth.

Like all real-life portrayals, Hidden Figures took poetic license. I'm hoping that maybe they did that in those pitiful scenes during which Johnson is forced to make a half-mile trek in one direction just to use a colored restroom.

"I'm not sure it was half a mile...(But) the point was made that it wasn't in her building," Hylick said. "I think, knowing mom, she would either figure a way not to have to go or she would combine it with lunch. If she really had to go, she would just go in the [white-only] restroom and not pay any attention. She never tried to pass for white (though)."

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and other black Greek organizations have been organizing screenings around the country. (Johnson pledged the sorority more than 80 years ago.) Her granddaughter, Laurie Hylick, is scheduled to make an appearance at an AKA screening scheduled for Saturday afternoon at the Carmike Ritz 16 in Voorhees, N.J.

"We just hope that it is the inspiration that young people need to pursue their dreams basically and to think that anything is attainable if you work hard and be kind to other people," Hylick said on Wednesday. "When those ladies had trouble. You didn't see the neck (movements) and the attitude, you know really ugly stuff. To me, it's a good teaching tool especially for young people."

She's right.

Go see it. Take some kids with you. Let's take advantage of Hidden Figures and the fact that Johnson's contributions no longer are hidden.

@JeniceArmstrong Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com

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