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Johnson portrayed at Chautauqua in Bonne Terre

By Jeannie Barton-Northrup,

Big River Chautauqua came to an end Saturday night in Bonne Terre with the quiet power that embodied historical figure Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician featured in the film, “Hidden Figures.”

The Chautauqua Singers grace the stage during the three-day event in Bonne Terre, Thursday-Saturday. The annual Big River Chautauqua brings in scholars who impersonate historical figures to offer more color and clarity to their lives.

The three-night Chautauqua event featured three scholars portraying the lives of historical figures in the field of space exploration. Saturday night at city hall’s auditorium on Allen Street, Johnson was brought to life by scholar Sherrie Tolliver. During Chautauqua, the scholars who portray the lives of the famous — and sometimes infamous  — have studied their characters so thoroughly they adopt the character’s persona during the performance and during Q and A time at the end.

Tolliver-as-Johnson explained she was born on Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a lumberman, farmer, and handyman. “Johnson” said her father was her hero and could do no wrong in her eyes.

She told a story about stepping on a snake, and before she could look down to see what she stepped on, her father had shot and killed the poisonous Copperhead to save her life. “Johnson” said she suspected she got her prowess with calculations from her father. She said her father could look at a tree and calculate in his head how many boards the tree would yield. She also spoke about her father’s uncanny ability to heal, saying ailments of all sorts would disappear with just a few words and a touch.

Tolliver-as-Johnson said she loved her mother, also. A unique situation arose in the ancestry of Johnson’s mother. At some point in her family tree — either grandparents or great-grandparents — a slave owner and an enslaved person had children together. Not so unique; the unique part is that the man who was the enslaver insisted all of his children be educated. Due to these remarkably unique circumstances, education was vital to Johnson’s life.

“Johnson” said her mother began teaching her letters and numbers at a very early age to give her something to do. It was evident to her parents that she was a brilliant child and wanted to learn. Johnson said she loved to count more than anything. She would count the stairs in her home, count the number of steps it took to walk around the house and count the number of steps it took to get to church. Her high intelligence got her into school at 4 years old and helped her to skip several grades.

At 10 years old, Johnson began high school on the campus of West Virginia State College (WVSC) in Institute, West Virginia. Johnson graduated high school at 14 and began taking college classes at WVSC. She took every math class the university offered. One of her most influential mentors, Dr. William Schieffelin Claytor, created math classes specifically for Johnson. When she was 18, Johnson graduated summa cum laude with degrees in mathematics and French.

Because mathematics careers were challenging to find for both women and African-Americans, Johnson decided to begin teaching. She loved to pass on the knowledge she had received to others. Johnson said she was creative when teaching math and other subjects children had no interest in learning. Her lessons in this area were fun and applicable to everyday life, so children wanted to learn the subjects.

While teaching, Johnson met and married her first husband — James “Jimmy” Goble. She said her father refused to bless the union; however, she was headstrong and married anyway. Later in life, Johnson learned why her father refused his blessing. Johnson’s father saw in the eyes of Goble that he would die young, and he didn’t want his daughter to endure the pain of being a young widow.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s father was correct in his predictions. Goble died in 1956 as the result of an inoperable brain tumor. Fortunately for Johnson, she attended at least one semester of a graduate degree program through West Virginia University (WVU) and secured a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) before Goble’s death. Her education, faith, and support of family and friends allowed Johnson to support the family of three daughters she and Goble had created.

From 1953 to 1986, Johnson kept her job as an analyst. NACA disbanded and became the National Aeronautical Space Agency (NASA). Through Johnson’s calculations, Alan Shepherd became the first American in space, John Glen orbited the Earth, and Americans landed on the moon and made a safe return. When NASA began using digital computers instead of human computers, Johnson verified information from digital computers and increased trust in their abilities.

Sherrie Tolliver plays Katherine Johnson Saturday night during Big River Chautauqua held at Bonne Terre City Hall’s auditorium.

Three years after the death of her first husband, Johnson married another “Jimmy”  —  James Johnson. The couple was married until he died in 2019. Johnson received several medals in her life; the first was the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barrack Obama presented Johnson with the award in 2015. Johnson died on February 24, 2020, at the age of 101.

After Tolliver-as-Johnson finished speaking and answering questions, scholar Sherri Tolliver took over. She said she became interested in Johnson’s life after reading a short article in a children’s book. Unfortunately, Tolliver could not discover any other information about Johnson until Johnson wrote an autobiography and “Hidden Figures” was born.

Tolliver is a native Clevelander whose 40-year career as an actor, writer, director, stand-up comic and history interpreter has taken her across the country and around the world. As an actor, she has performed in major productions at The Cleveland Play House, Karamu Theatre, Cleveland Public Theatre, Ensemble Theatre and the JCC Halle Theatre.

She is a certified history interpreter, and as a member of the group Women In History, she has brought the stories of great American women such as Ida B. Wells, Madam C.J. Walker and Elizabeth Keckley to life for audiences of all ages. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, with a minor in African American History.

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