The Presidential Medal of Freedom was first awarded in 1960, and for over 50 years it has been given to those who have made great contributions in their chosen fields. On November 24, this year’s recipients will be honored at the White House. Some of the big names being honored include Steven Spielberg and Barbara Streisand but among them are also Black pioneers that have broken through racial boundaries. Politician Shirley Chisholm (Nov. 30, 1924 – Jan. 1, 2005), baseball great Willie Mays, and NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson will join the likes of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin who were past honorees.
Katherine G. Johnson
At age 97, Johnson will be awarded for being a pioneer in the early days of America’s space exploration. She is a human computer who was a research mathematician at Langley Research Center at the NASA predecessor, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In 1934, she earned her bachelor’s in French and mathematics from West Virginia State University. She also became the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Johnson was known for her mathematical accuracy in computerized celestial navigation. In the early days of the computer, her knack for numbers helped create the earliest application of digital electronic computers at NASA. Her mathematical calculations made the 1969 Apollo 11 mission possible. Ultimately, she paved the way for people like astronaut Mae Jemison and scores of others to defy the odds.
Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm
Chisholm’s award will be given to her posthumously. She’s being awarded because of her outstanding life as an educator and politician who stood up for Black rights and fought tirelessly for progress. She made history as the first Black woman to be elected to congress in 1968. As a politician, she was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also became the first Black woman to run as a Democratic presidential candidate in 1972.
MLB great Mays, also known as “The Say Hey Kid,” spent 22 seasons in baseball, wowing the world with his spectacular athletic prowess and skill, breaking down color barriers in the process. Mays is the fifth all-time home run holder with 660.