A Tribute to Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson
By Gary Cunningham, Star Tribune
“She was then as she is now: always, calm, witty, a glutton for hard work, and shrewd as they come. Though she was still a young woman in the mid-60s, Josie was already a veteran civil- rights campaigner and a seasoned lobbyist for fair housing and employment laws at the State Capital. She was known and respected by legislators, governors and business leaders.”
Overcoming – the Autobiography of W. Harry Davis edited by Lori Sturtevant – 2002
On an unusually warm, bright sunny November morning, I walked into the French Meadow Café in Minneapolis to meet with one of the most graceful, compassionate and remarkable leaders of our community. Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson is an eloquent woman with beautiful silver hair, high cheekbones, a dignified frame and rich caramel-colored skin. On this day, she wore a red jacket with a beautiful purple silk scarf. She is always dressed impeccably. On her lapel was a bright yellow button that read “So! Do you know how our children are doing?”
Josie speaks in a careful cadence, with a slight hint of a southern accent. Soothing, it draws me in.
“Hello, Gary. It’s so nice to see you,” she says as she reaches out, graceful arms, delicate hands outstretched. My hero gives me a big hug.
We stop at the register to buy some coffee. People throughout the cafe are now stopping to say hello to Josie as we pick up our coffee. Josie is a well-known icon. Her story is an integral part of the rich tapestry and vibrant history of the African American community in the Twin Cities. Josie is a magnificent community leader, scholar, administrator, social and political activist, mother, grandmother, and teacher.
Two generations out of slavery, Josie grew up in Texas. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she earned a B.A. in Sociology. She went on to earn an M. A. and Ed. D. at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In 1964, Josie Johnson led a multiracial delegation of women from Minnesota to witness first-hand the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. I can hardly imagine the courage it took these women to confront the violence and injustice of unabashed racism in the South at that time. Josie transcended the pain of inequality and denied opportunity to build a lasting legacy of hope and opportunity.
African Americans are indebted to the hard work, perseverance and trailblazing efforts of Josie Johnson. In 1967, her work as acting director of the Minneapolis Urban League, was responsible for creating many successful programs to help African American people find employment, housing, and to make community connections. She severed as a bridge between communities, as an assistant to Mayor Art Naftalin during the turbulent riots in North Minneapolis. Josie used her experience, knowledge, and skill to champion with others the creation of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
Josie became the first African American appointed to the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota (U of M), in 1971. In the 1990’s, as associate vice-president for academic affairs at the U of M, she spearheaded efforts to increase diversity in the student body and faculty. To honor her committed efforts, the U of M established the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award, which honors “its faculty, staff, and students who, through their principles and practices, exemplify Dr. Johnson’s standard of excellence in creating respectful and inclusive living, learning, and working environments.”
Recently, Josie finished a stint as principal at the Saint Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul. Saint Peter Claver serves primarily low-income African American children and focuses on quality academics. It teaches resilient faith, self-determination, perseverance, hospitality, participation, respect, and reverence. Many of today’s local notable African American leaders are graduates of this important community institution.
Josie explained that her experiences working with the children at Saint Peter Claver had a profound impact on her. The stories she told gripped me, stories of children and families battling poverty and harmful peer pressures. Wistfully she noted that great teachers and discipline alone would not change the outcome of for our children. We have to “go beyond the classroom” into the homes to work with the parents.
“Gary.” She pauses, and is very thoughtful and quiet for a moment. She studies my face, perhaps to gauge my readiness. Has a dense cloud suddenly shadowed the bright sidewalk outside? A look of deep concern crosses over her face. “Gary, it is so important that we focus on our young people. There is so much work left to be done. Things are much more challenging for our children today then they have been in the past.”
As Josie said these words, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and goose bumps run up and down my arms. At that moment, I felt the total weight of responsibility that we all have to leave this place better for the next generation. As great mentors do, Josie was again raising the bar. She was letting me know that I cannot rest on my laurels; these children need my help, all our help, more now than ever before.
Then into our conversation, Josie casually mentions that, she turned 80 last month. I could not believe it – WOW! What a milestone.
Josie then, without skipping a beat, began to paint a picture of her vision to bring elders and young aspiring African American leaders together. That’s a vision I share. Big-time. We need to ensure that young people learn from the hard-fought wisdom and experiences in the struggles and victories gained over many years. Her words remained me of that old saying, “Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
As I went to refill my coffee and thought about Josie’s vision for the future, I flashed back ten years. I am mentally, for a moment, back in a strategic planning meeting of the Leland-Johnson Common Vision organization at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. Josie founded Leland-Johnson Common Vision, in honor of her daughter, Patrice Yvonne Johnson, and Congressman Mickey Leland, both of whom perished in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1989. The Leland-Johnson Common Vision organization brought together African-American and Jewish high school students to dispel myths and stereotypes, promote understanding, and develop leaders who would fight racism and anti-Semitism. Students participated in lectures, projects, and field trips in this yearlong program.
My time on the Leland-Johnson board was a fantastic experience. The people I met, the students, my fellow board members and people of the community taught me a lot. I came away with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the intertwining history and relationship of African American and Jewish people. I am deeply indebted to Josie for opening this door to me.
As I return to the table, we begin laying plans to make our joint vision of intergenerational learning a reality. The time passes effortlessly as we talked. Sooner than I wanted, it was time for us to part. We set the time for our next meeting to finish this unfinished business.
Josie’s life experience, dedication to human, and civil rights helped change the social, economic, and political landscape for all of us. We all owe Josie a great debt of gratitude for all she has done to make our community a better place of justice, equality, and opportunity for all.
Thank you, Josie!