How Katherine Johnson’s integrity inspires me

Published 6:52 pm Friday, September 3, 2021

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By Tonya Sinclair Swindell

Integrity involves doing the right thing, even when it does not seem easy. The words “not easy” have a tendency to stand out, because making wise choices can be difficult, no doubt. And I admit that I am a work in progress, so I was inspired to learn of the integrity and class of Katherine Johnson, the black female mathematician who was instrumental in John Glenn’s earth-orbiting mission.

Integrity can inspire me to make good decisions, when choices are unclear or I have limited vision. It speaks, saying: “Do this or do that; but try making wise choices that you won’t soon regret.”

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Integrity motivated Katherine Johnson, a “Hidden Figure” skilled at computation. When Johnson arrived at NASA to work, a colleague refused to sit near her. “Well, I came here to work; and that’s what I’m going to do,” was Mrs. Johnson’s response after her co-worker refused.

Undoubtedly her co-worker was not used to sitting so close in proximity to a woman like Johnson, with a beautiful brown hue, who was divinely gifted at what she was sent there to do. As a member of a group of scientists and astronauts, white men, who took pride in doing their jobs, it likely felt difficult to sit nearby while a woman of color computed distance and time. Like many existing within a segregated community, he likely never experienced the unique pleasure and opportunity to venture beyond the perceived social barriers that made working together such a difficult matter.

Mrs. Johnson made a conscious decision to excel despite the opposition. She didn’t downplay her mathematical skills, though others displayed their disdain and ill will. She openly showed her exquisite brilliance and did it with professionalism.

Johnson and many others carried a figurative mantle, and skillfully but carefully set an excellent example of what it looks like to walk in integrity when others throw jabs at one’s humanity. They exemplified character and respectable behavior in the presence of naysayers, doubters and haters. It could not have been easy, not one minute, to resist the temptation to just give in to feelings of bitterness or unforgiveness instead of integrity and civility — the honorable virtues of business.

Now their actions reveal important lessons about handling situations that attempt to threaten or divide and conquer feelings of unity among a variety of individuals hailing from diverse communities. Johnson’s integrity said, “I’m not going to do this: stop making good choices due to another person’s hubris — or pride that could get in the way of progress that we as a people have made.”

As I mentioned before, I am a work in progress, learning lessons that were lived, then taught by the best: individuals like Mrs. Katherine Johnson, a proud recipient of a presidential honor. Mrs. Johnson, your legacy continues to inspire, and following your example is one of my desires. I acknowledge your greatness posthumously and thank you for being an example to me.

This column was originally published in the New Journal and Guide newspaper in the Aug. 19-25 edition.

Tonya Sinclair Swindell is the author of “Nourishment & Encouragement: Poetry For Your Mind, Body, and Soul.” She can be reached at: or on Facebook at Tonya Sinclair Swindell — Teacher With A Pen.