We define initiative as recognizing our responsibility to make things happen. To be proactive rather than reactive. Initiative is important in the professional world for job performance and career advancement.
Katherine G. Johnson
Katherine G. Johnson is an African- American mathematician and space physicist who rocked the social structures of NASA in order to become one of the most famed and honored aeronautical scientists of the modern era. From her first steps in West Virginia to the capitol steps in Washington D.C., Johnson took initiative by smashing racial and gender barriers through her fierce inquisitiveness and by leading the nation in academic and professional excellence.
Johnson’s long and decorated journey to the cosmic frontier began in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, during a time when schools were still segregated and black women were not permitted to be schooled beyond eighth grade. With education as a central theme in her family, West Virginia’s Jim Crow sociopolitical setting primed Johnson for a lifetime of taking initiative.
When Johnson and her sister had both finished eighth grade, their father moved the family to Institute, WV, where the girls could continue their education in a black high school attached to what was then West Virginia State College. “He was hell-bent on getting his children educated,” Joylette Hylick, Katherine Johnson’s daughter, said of her grandfather. At just 13 years old, Johnson graduated high school and began her academic career at West Virginia State College, where she fell under the tutelage of Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, at the time only the third African-American to acquire a Ph.D. in mathematics.
Dr. Claytor noticed Johnson’s initiative and took it upon himself to prepare her for a professional life of racial barriers and great successes. She graduated college in 1937 at 18 years old with degrees in mathematics and French, and headed east to teach in still-segregated and openly racist Virginia. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1938 that state universities must admit black students, Johnson was reluctantly called upon to study mathematics at West Virginia University by the legally-forced hands of the pro-segregation administration. Johnson spent just one summer as the only black female at WVU, recalling it as an unfriendly environment before returning to Virginia to teach for a decade.
In 1951, Johnson caught wind of a job opportunity with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The fledgling agency that would go on to become NASA was searching for black female mathematicians to complete data analysis at its Langley Research Center, processing and verifying experimental flight data by hand. Required to hire black women by executive order, the facility remained segregated—white and black female “computers in skirts” worked in separate rooms. It was here Johnson took initiative by questioning her superiors and asserting her mathematical prowess.
“She didn’t want to just do the work—she wanted to know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘why nots,’” NASA wrote in a short biography of Johnson. “None of the other women had ever asked questions before, but by asking questions, Johnson began to stand out.” By forcing her way into meetings with all-white engineers, Johnson joined the Flight Research Division of NACA, the program that would form the backbone of the current NASA space program.
In 1958, NACA become NASA, and Johnson helped pioneer space flight. “The whole idea of going into space was new and daring,” Johnson told historian Wini Warren. “There were no textbooks, so we had to write them. We wrote the first textbook by hand, starting from scratch.” Johnson went on to publish a landmark 1960 paper titled “The Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position.”
At the time, academic practice was to omit female contributors in publishing credits, even if they were primary authors. The fact that Johnson’s name appears in the title is historically significant. Even with the odds stacked against her—Johnson held the extremely unlikely status as a young black woman from West Virginia—her sky-shattering paper would become known as the key document in the successful placement of an American astronaut in planetary orbit.
This paper was the launching point of the successful 1959 flight and retrieval of Alan Shepard, the first American to pierce the atmosphere and enter the realm of outer space. Johnson’s complex equations would also serve as the foundation for NASA’s first digital computers that helped track John Glenn’s triple earth orbit in 1962. The primitive computers, of which agency personnel were skeptical, produced data that Johnson verified by hand.
“We computed the launch window, telling them the altitude, the speed…and if you meet those qualifications, within this area, the ellipsoid, the trajectory will go as you planned,” Johnson said. “That’s the way it was. They just said, ‘if she says it’s right, it’s right,’ because the guys didn’t do the work. I did it.”
Johnson also calculated the trajectory of the Apollo 11 mission that would land the first astronauts on the moon. Steadfast in her initiative and assurance of her calculations, Johnson knew she had to produce absolute mathematical perfection. “When they went to the moon the first time, everybody was concerned about them getting there—we were concerned about them getting back,” she said. “If the Eagle lunar module launched at the wrong time, or with the wrong force, if it didn’t hook back up with the spacecraft, there wasn’t another one coming.”
Johnson’s magnificent achievements went largely unnoticed by a nation that was captivated by space flight. Little did the sky watchers know that Alan Shepard wouldn’t have landed as predicted, John Glenn wouldn’t have orbited the planet, and the Apollo astronauts wouldn’t have returned to terra firma if Johnson had miscalculated her measurements by even a decimal point.
Although a humble woman who saw a day’s work as just that, Johnson received deserved recognition in 2015 when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an American civilian. She was also recognized by the Charleston Gazette-Mail as the 2015 West Virginian of the Year. She holds three honorary doctorate degrees and five NASA Special Achievement Awards.
We define life management as the necessary management of day-to-day activities and tasks that help sustain an independent lifestyle.
Booker Taliferro Washington
Booker T. Washington was of the last generation of African Americans born into slavery who became one of the foremost educators, authors, and orators of his time. As founder of the Tuskegee Institute, an educational institution for blacks, Washington focused on agricultural training and the practice of life management skills so that his students could work toward leading quality lives as free people in a county still ripe with racist sentiments.
Washington was born in Franklin County, Virginia, where children of slaves became slaves by default. Washington’s mother, Jane, was a cook for a plantation owner. His father, however, was an unknown white man, likely from a neighboring plantation. As a childhood slave, Washington was forced to carry 100-pound sacks of grain to the plantation’s milling grounds, and was often beaten for not being able to perform his duties to the overseers’ standards. While locked in the oppressive shackles of slavery, Washington could see into the windows of a schoolhouse alongside the plantation, where he would watch with envy as white children learned to read and write—activities that were illegal to teach to slaves.
After Union victory in the Civil War freed the slaves, his family moved to Malden, Kanawha County, in 1865 to join Booker’s stepfather, Washington Ferguson, a slave who had escaped to freedom during the war. At the age of nine, Washington went to work with his stepfather in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia. His mother took note of his desire to learn, and young Booker would wake up at 4 a.m. each day to practice reading and writing before going to work. He later took a job as a houseboy for Viola Ruffner, the wife of a coal mine owner. Ruffner, famous for being strict with her servants, warmed up to Washington and took note of his maturity and hunger for knowledge, allowing him to attend one hour of schooling per day at a one-room school house for blacks in Malden.
Washington left Malden and walked nearly 500 miles to pursue education at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where he worked as a janitor to pay for his tuition. Completing his studies on a scholarship that was sponsored by a white man who supported the advancement of freed slaves, he graduated from the Institute with honors in 1875. He returned to Malden to embark on his career as an educator before returning to teach for several years at the Hampton Institute.
In 1881, the Alabama legislature approved a $2,000 expenditure to open a “colored” school— the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). Washington was recommended by the Hampton Institute’s headmaster, General Samuel C. Armstrong, following the request that the school be founded by a white man. Part of Washington’s early campaigning as headmaster was to ensure whites in Tuskegee that the Institute posed no threat to white supremacy and no competition to white businesses.
He built upon his life lessons to design the curriculum, which stressed the virtues of hard work, patience, enterprise, time efficiency, and life management. In transitioning away from a slave-based economy, he wanted fellow African Americans to prove their worth not just through legal battles but also through economic and political leadership. Washington believed that African Americans would gain the respect of other Americans by working hard to obtain financial independence and advance their education. The Tuskegee Institute’s success established Washington’s reputation, and his speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States Exposition that outlined a plan for white acceptance of the black community to further the southern economy thrust him into the national spotlight.
Washington became such a prominent figure that President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House in 1901, making him the first African American to receive such an honor. Roosevelt and his presidential successor, William Taft, both relied on Washington as an advisor on racial issues due to his relaxed stance on black subservience to whites. Washington’s role in the White House was not without controversy, sparking vehement and vile responses from white members of Congress.
The following quotations contain language that may be considered offensive. Coalfield has included these quotations to shed light upon the racial attitudes of some leaders during this time period and to illustrate the plight that African Americans faced in all levels of society. Coalfield does not condone the use of this language, and always expresses support for racial equality.
Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman and Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina indulged in inexcusable racist attacks following Washington’s meeting with Roosevelt. Vardaman described the White House as “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable”, and declared, “I am just as much opposed to Booker T. Washington as a voter as I am to the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither is fit to perform the supreme function of citizenship” (Wickham, 2002). Tillman said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again” (Kennedy, 2002).
Despite the reprehensible verbal attacks, Washington persevered in the face of rampant racism—both in Washington and the South. As an accomplished author, he published 14 books; his 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery received national critical acclaim and is still widely read today. During his tenure as Principal of the Tuskegee Institute, Washington took the school from 37 students in one room of a church to an institution with 110 buildings, over 2,000 acres of land, loads of farm equipment, and a permanent endowment of over $2 million.
Washington died at the age of 59 on the Tuskegee Institute campus from congestive heart failure. Effectively using his life management skills to maintain his important West Virginia connections, he remained active with the African Zion Baptist Church in Malden, and was a regular speaker at the West Virginia Colored Institute (now West Virginia State University) in the town of Institute. Washington is honored by a statue on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol complex.
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