Inside WRAL

Thurmond: Reporting a reminder that heroes walk among us

Posted February 1

Very few of my stories have ever brought me to tears, but Katherine Johnson’s is one of them.

As a journalist, the goal is to remain objective, but this assignment was different: It was personal.

Johnson, 98, is the real-life woman who inspired the movie "Hidden Figures." The feature film tells the true story of the key role three African-American mathematicians played at NASA during the 1960s space race. At the center of the movie was Taraji P. Henson, who portrayed Johnson’s story.

Prior to the interview, I’d already seen the movie and immediately realized that this assignment would carry a different kind of weight for me: I saw myself in Katherine Johnson’s story.

As a black woman, I knew that I would not be here today without the perseverance and resilience of women just like her. I, like millions of others, was inspired.

Last week, I and photojournalist Darrell Pryor went to Greensboro to meet Johnson’s daughter, Katherine Moore. She described herself as the “behind the scenes person,” telling me that she never comfortable in the spotlight.

I couldn’t help but think that perhaps she inherited that characteristic from her mother, a woman who pioneered a path for black women in math and science without ever desiring any credit.

The more we talked about her mom, the more I became invested. I suddenly realized that there are so many more Katherine Johnsons out there. Pioneers who quietly changed the world without any desire for recognition.

I couldn’t hold my tears in.

It’s only because of these men and women, who have yet to be recognized, that I, a young black woman, can be on TV every day.

I was also sad because I’d taken all of their remarkable contributions for granted.

Since the story aired, I’ve been inundated with emails and calls about other local NASA mathematicians who worked right alongside Katherine Johnson. Their children and grandchildren live and work among us every day.

My hope is that by telling THIS story – my own story – we, as a community, will begin to seek out those heroes tucked in the shadows of history.

And perhaps, by climbing each of our own family trees, we will find those heroes much closer than we realize.

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Inside WRAL takes you behind the scenes of the news business and the stories we cover.