Janice “Jay” Johnson attributes the Girl Scouts and her troop leader for her success.
Johnson’s leader was the late Mary Jackson, who was one of the “human computers” at National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA) at Langley Research Center in the 1950s. She is one of the ladies portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures.
The 83-year-old Newport News resident describes Jackson as her “second mother.” She was unaware of Jackson’s exact job at NASA.
“I knew she worked at NASA, but I didn’t know what she did. When I was growing up, people would say they work for the government and that was it,” Johnson said.
She describes herself in youth “as a little fat girl.” During that time, it was difficult to find a formal dress for her prom. Jackson designed and made her that dress.
When working on badges, Johnson said her leader would make it fun to the point, the girls did not realize they were working on a badge.
“My first badge was housekeeping,” she said.
Jackson’s troop was so popular, at one point there were about 60 girls. She enlisted Johnson, then 15 years old, to be her assistant leader.
“60 girls were too much for one person. That time reinforced what I was learning about being a leader,” she said.
Johnson said the girl only environment, that the Girl Scouts offer, helped her feel value as a person.
“Girls develop a sense of themselves with Girl Scouts,” she said.
Johnson was chosen, in 1956, to be one of two girls from Virginia to go to All-State Encampment in Wyoming. She was the only African American girl there.
Knowing the camp was physically challenging, Jackson asked a co-worker at NASA to help prepare Johnson.
That experience helped prepare her for Wilson College, where she was the only Black student in the freshman class.
“I was prepared to be away from home and in a new place,” she said.
The Phenix High School graduate later earned her Master’s Degree from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University).
The friendship remained for years, Johnson said.
“We stayed friends no matter what,” she said.
She also broke barriers by being the first African American Girl Scout in Virginia to serve on a Girl Scout Senior Planning Board. That led her to starting a career as a “professional Girl Scout,” Johnson said.
She served as a membership consultant for Girl Scouts U.S.A. and was an assistant to the first African American national president, Dr. Gloria Scott. She was then promoted to CEO of a Girl Scout council in Ohio. Johnson finished her career with the city of Hampton as a director of a youth program. She still serves on the Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast Advocacy Committee.
Within the past couple of years, Johnson has become a personal storyteller.