It’s a new era for the school!
Iconic NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson’s name has replaced a Confederate soldier’s on a Virginia middle school, ABC News reports. The City of Fairfax’s school board voted unanimously in November 2020 to rename Sidney Lanier Middle School after months of debate. At the time, Confederate statues, institutions, and monuments were coming under fire during national protests against racism.
Civil rights activists have long argued that honoring those who fought for the Confederacy continues to celebrate the country’s history of slavery and racism. Last week, the former middle school held a renaming ceremony, choosing to rename the school in honor of Katherine Johnson. She is the inspiring NASA mathematician who was one of four Black women who made it possible for the first American astronaut to orbit Earth successfully.
“[Johnson’s] contributions continued to serve the nation and helped ensure that the ‘Eagle had landed…and landed safely.’ So, I think it appropriate that the name Katherine Johnson for our middle school will inspire new generations of ‘Eagles’ for our community, and I look forward to watching them fly,” Jon Buttram, a city school board member said.
Johnson’s story first rose to prominence after being portrayed in the 2016 blockbuster film “Hidden Figures.” The mathematician was hired by NASA in 1953 and was responsible for helping to calculate the trajectory for AlanShepard, the first American in space, back before electronic computers were used. Even after computers came into play for these types of missions, when astronaut John Glenn was getting ready for his mission, he requested that Johnson recheck his calculations. Glenn would go on to become the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2019, she received a Congressional gold medal along with other “Hidden Figures,” Dr. Christine Darden, and posthumous medals awarded to Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson under the “Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act.” Johnson passed away in February 2020 at 101-years-old.
Principal Dr. Tammara M. Hanna spoke about the significance of the school’s renaming, saying, “Our school had been named in the 1960s when Fairfax County named all middle schools after literary figures. After six months of community engagement and receiving over 300 name suggestions, we thought it was important to find a name that reflected the values and beliefs of our diverse school and community. We found great enthusiasm in selecting Katherine Johnson to be our new namesake. As our City of Fairfax Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Pajardo reminded us at the ceremony, ‘Names matter, names inspire, and names show students that they are valued.'”
Johnson’s family members attended the ceremony. Her niece, Valerie Johnson, who also happens to be a Fairfax County Public Schools math resource specialist, said that her aunt would be ecstatic about the name change.
“We’re elated that they’ve chosen her name out of so many other names. She had very humble beginnings, she wasn’t a prideful person, and she never really let people know about all her accomplishments. Even as a child, I did not really understand the magnitude of her work, but as I became an adult, I learned about her great and important work at NASA and the fact that she really had superpowers; they were passion, perseverance, and courage,” Johnson said.
The new Katherine Johnson Middle School is the second school renaming done in Fairfax County after a Black cultural icon this year. In April, they became the first school district to rename a high school in honor of the late civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis.
Photo Courtesy of ABC