INSTITUTE, W.Va. — The life and legacy of West Virginia State University alumna and pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson were celebrated Thursday on campus.
The school held a memorial and wreath-laying ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient at the plaza dedicated in her honor. Several West Virginia State (WVSU) officials spoke about the impact of Johnson on their lives, WVSU and the world.
Johnson passed away at age 101 on Feb. 24 at the Hidenwood Retirement Community in Newport News, Virginia.
“With everything that she did as far as being a mathematical genius and helping us to advance in the space race, it’s very important to talk out and continue to share her story so the next generation moving forward will not forget about her,” Toinette Jenkins, the First Lady of WVSU told MetroNews.
Jenkins gave emotional remarks to the crowd bathed in the sunlight at the Katherine Johnson Plaza. She spoke on Johnson’s impact on her own life and getting the chance to meet her several times.
Johnson is best known for her work with NASA, which was shown in the movie and book, “Hidden Figures.”
She was a native of White Sulphur Springs, but due to segregation in the 1930s was unable to attend high school in Greenbrier County. Johnson attended a high school program at West Virginia State College in Kanawha County.
Johnson completed her undergraduate degree at the institution, which is now known as WVSU.
“To know that in spite of the odds, in spite of what circumstances, situation or environments you’re in to push through,” Jenkins said of how Johnson inspires her.
“To continue to be who you are to your core, to never let go of that integrity that is inside, to lastly put forth and continue to have that strong work ethic. This all inspires me to my core.”
Johnson was initiated into the Nu Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha while at WVSU, the same sorority that Jenkins was in while at Shaw University in the Beta Rho Chapter.
Deja Smoot, a member of the current Nu Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha at WVSU spoke at the event. The memorial also featured a message from WVSU students presented by Colleen Miller, the President of the WVSU Student Government Association and songs led by Katelyn Cottrill, a music education major.
Messages on Johnson were also received by Belinda K. Fuller on behalf of Dr. Lateef Y. Saffore, ’96 and the WVSU National Alumni Association, and by Patricia J. Schumann, the President of the WVSU Foundation Inc.
Jenkins and her husband, WVSU President Dr. Anthony Jenkins laid a wreath at the feet of the Johnson statue. The plaza where the statue stands was dedicated in her name on Aug. 25, 2018, the day before Johnson’s 100th birthday, along with a scholarship.
“It’s awesome to know we are reaching beyond the borders here in West Virginia,” Toinette Jenkins said of Johnson’s impact.
“To know that so many distinct and dynamic alums are doing great things in neighboring and the nation is very important to highlight as well.”