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Following '60 Minutes' nod, St. Mary's Academy in New Orleans to receive $1M from former NBA star Charles Barkley

The gift from the retired NBA star was inspired by two Maryite alums and their historic mathematics proof that first made headlines last year.

Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley at the 2019 NBA Awards in Santa Monica, California. (Lisa O’Connor/AFP/Getty Images)

A year out from discovering an "impossible" mathematics proof that shocked the world, two graduates from St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans have inspired a transformational gift for their Black Catholic alma mater.

Calcea Johnson and Ne’Kiya Jackson, now college students at Louisiana State University and Xavier University of Louisiana, appeared on “60 Minutes” earlier this month to share their story, racking up brand-new headlines and more than a million views on social media.

Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame basketball star and popular NBA analyst—who reportedly never misses the weekly news segment—saw the episode and decided to support St. Mary’s to the tune of a million dollars.

 “A lot is demanded of everybody at the school—high excellence, he told “And these two young Black women did something in mathematics that was incredible. It just inspired me.”

The two classmates were seniors when they discovered a new trigonometric proof for the Pythagorean Theorem, sparking discourse on the history of the formula and its enduring conundrums. Only one other similar proof has been found before, and experts have said the acumen required to do what the two teens did is rare. Their work was presented at an academic conference last year.

“Are you math geniuses?” Bill Whitaker asked the two young scholars on the May 5 episode of “60 Minutes,” which aired nationally on CBS.

Johnson and Jackson have demurred on painting themselves as true outliers, instead giving credit to the rigor instilled in them at their historic K-12 institution—one of the oldest Black Catholic schools in the country. St Mary’s was started by the Sisters of the Holy Family, an order of African-American nuns, in 1867 and counts as its founder a woman now on the path to sainthood: Venerable Henriette DeLille.

Having dedicated her life to educating the poor and the enslaved in the Crescent City, DeLillle joined her sisters in operating the school as an avenue for Black education among the least privileged—a mission the school has continued more than 150 years later.

The school’s president, Pamela M. Rogers, told Whitaker that for the past 17 years, St Mary’s has had both a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college acceptance rate. Johnson was the school’s valedictorian last spring.

“Our students can do anything, and that's what we tell them,” Rogers told Whitaker on the CBS broadcast. 

While the school had not yet received a check from Barkley as of mid-May, Rogers told The Clarion Herald that St. Mary’s officials are “comfortable that it's going to happen,” even if the details are not yet clear.

Barkley is indeed likely to come through on his pledge, having made similar donations to various historically Black schools in the past. Recent years have seen him donate $1M each to Bethune-Cookman University, Jackson State, Alabama A&M, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Miles College, Tuskegee, and Spelman. Last summer, he announced plans to donate $5M to Auburn University for Black student scholarships.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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