The story of Katherine G. Johnson, who visited E.E. Smith in 2010, returns in a big way

Years before Katherine G. Johnson’s story went worldwide, the reserved, unassuming mathematician visited E.E. Smith High School to talk to and inspire the students.

She told them about her work at NASA, where she was part of a team that did the computations for the famous space missions.

“It was a real challenge to do the Apollo missions to the moon," she said in typical understatement during her 2010 visit.

Now, Johnson’s story is coming back to Fayetteville, big time.

Margot Lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures,” is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seabrook Auditorium on the campus of Fayetteville State University. The event is part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series and is free and open to the public.

“Hidden Figures” is subtitled, “The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” The story of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson became a New York Times and Amazon best-selling book and inspired the hit movie of last year.

Shetterly is a native of Hampton, Virginia, where she grew up knowing the women behind “Hidden Figures.”

Her father was a scientist at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, she told The Washington Post shortly after publication of her her book in 2016.

“There are these women and I knew them, and my dad worked with them and they went to our church and their kids were in my school,” she said. “It was my husband who was like, ‘What is this story? How come I’ve never heard about it?’ ”

She became concerned that while the stories were familiar to her (“Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine” she says), they were fading into non-existence at NASA itself.

In 2014, she founded The Human Computer Project, which seeks to reveal the stories of the women who worked at NASA and NACA from the 1930s to 1980s.

A statement at the project’s website says: “Our hope is that these role models will inspire a new generation of women and minorities to pursue careers in STEM fields, and that everyone will gain a broader sense of what mathematicians, engineers and scientists look like.”

Johnson, who will turn 100 this year, was one of the foremost “human computers” of that era. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and in 2017 NASA dedicated the Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility.

Fayetteville resident Larry Rivera said he plans to attend Shetterly’s talk. He and his father Joe Rivera were responsible for bringing Johnson to Fayetteville in 2010.

Larry Rivera met Johnson’s late daughter, Connie Garcia, at a convention the previous year. Johnson herself tells part of the story at a video posted by Project 2nd Chance, a youth outreach organization that Rivera heads.

Johnson says her daughter asked Rivera, “You don’t know who my momma is?”

Garcia thought her mother’s work at NASA should be told far and wide as an inspiration for youth,  Rivera says. Johnson, who is low-key, initially resisted. On the video, she says going to E.E. Smith “got all this started.”

Rivera has kept close contact with Johnson, who he calls Miss Katherine, and to whom he considers himself an adopted grandson. She gifted to Rivera’s children a piano and has said one of his sons is teaching her Spanish.

Last Friday, Rivera spoke about Johnson in a motivational speech he gave at Ferguson-Easley Elementary School.

Toward the end of the Project 2nd Chance video, he is shown talking to Johnson.

“Miss Connie said she wanted your name to go to the world. Now, look Miss Connie is happy.”

Clearly, Johnson is a hidden figure no more.

 Columnist Myron B. Pitts can be reached at mpitts@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3559.