INSTITUTE, W.Va. — “This is not a movie about race,” said West Virginia State University President Anthony Jenkins of the new film Hidden Figures. “This is a movie about coming together for a common good.”
Jenkins was one of a handful of West Virginia State officials, alumni, and students who were treated to a pre-screening of the picture ahead of its national release last weekend. The reason West Virginia State is so closely tied to the movie is because of one of the main characters is W.Va. State Alum Katherine Johnson.
Johnson was a native of White Sulphur Springs, but due to segregation was unable to attend school in Greenbrier County in the 1930’s. She instead went to high school at West Virginia State, which at the time had a high school program. She eventually stayed on to complete her undergraduate degree. The movie follows her unlikely path to becoming one of three black women who wind up playing a key role at NASA in winning the space race in the 1960’s.
“When you have someone who has a skill set as sharp as Katherine Johnson and to be in an environment that may not be as welcoming and supportive, but still know you can add value and be an actual contributing member to doing something much larger than yourself, that’s what Katherine Johnson really embodies,” Jenkins said during an appearance on MetroNews “Talkline.” “Her story and what she has done since she left State is not just a West Virginia or a West Virginia State story, it’s an American story.”
The movie, based on the book of the same title, chronicles the difficulties Johnson and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughn and and Mary
Jackson, endured in a segregated and often hostile environment because of their race and gender. The movie tells the story of overcoming those obstacles and earning the respect and admiration their peers including key figures in the U.S. Space program like John Glenn and Alan Shepard.
“I think it’s a wonderful movie which really talks about when we collectively come together, regardless of race, economic status, and religion and so forth, what we can accomplish is second to none,” said Jenkins.
Johnson became a noted mathematician and physicist well known for her calculations on space travel and trajectory. Her technical work after the 1960’s space program spanned several decades at NASA from the Mercury project through most of the Space Shuttle programs. Today at age 98, she makes her home in Hampton, Virginia. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.