Josie Robinson Johnson led the Urban League in Minneapolis in the late 1960s. Photo by Marie Foss.
As Josie Robinson Johnson retraces the pattern of her life—African American activist, educator, volunteer—she introduces each phase with “I’ve been blessed.”
Clearly, one of her foremost attributes is humility; it’s the citizens of Minnesota—and beyond—who have been blessed by this woman’s work to right inequalities and make the world a better place, especially for underserved people of color.
“Anything in the process of civil rights that hadn’t been done before, I’ve been there,” she related quietly, almost as an afterthought as we sipped coffee in her comfortable Minneapolis high-rise apartment. Wonder joined her smile as Johnson relived her history: “So many ‘firsts.’” Bestowing rather than claiming credit, she repeated: “I’ve been blessed.”
Growing up in Houston, Johnson’s dedication was no more and no less than her family expected of her. “I come from very strong people, and they instilled a very strong sense of self in my brothers and me,” she stated with quiet dignity. Her father, who downsized his dream of law school when African Americans were denied admission, worked for the railroad. He worked for African American workers’ benefits at the time when A. Philip Randolph made history unionizing African American Pullman porters. Johnson often accompanied her father while he worked, scouring their Houston precinct together, carrying petitions to end the poll tax.
Johnson’s mother, who graduated from college in 1929, taught the wives of nouveau riche white businessmen how to read (entering their houses through the back door, her daughter wryly notes) and managed a housing project. Following their parents’ example, Johnson’s older brother was the first African American elected to Houston’s city council in 1971. Johnson helped in his campaign. Her younger brother, a lawyer, was one of the first African Americans involved in nonprofit housing.
“We were taught that discrimination lessened those who practiced it, not us,” Johnson recalled. “Never ‘Why me, Lord?’ ”
A life of service
Johnson entered college as a pre-med student, but increasingly she was drawn toward working to better the lives of others, and she ended up with a degree (her first of many) in sociology. “Service and education are my passions,” she offered with her customary smile.
In 1956 Johnson followed her husband to Minnesota; here her vocation as a volunteer kicked in. She lobbied for fair employment and housing with the League of Women Voters and NAACP. In the turbulent 1960s, she felt called to join women from around the country who were traveling to Mississippi to report on the condition of women and girls in communities riled by black voter registration.
“I remember trying to decide: Should I risk my life to go? I’ve got three little children,” she said, glancing at their photos on the wall. She had just cause for concern: A freedom school she visited was bombed later that same day.
In Minneapolis, Johnson became a community organizer for the Urban League. In 1967 she became the acting director, a position she looks back on now as “a great opportunity.”
“We established the group as a liaison between our community and the established government structure,” creating the Urban Coalition and the city’s Human Rights Department. Those efforts, Johnson recalled, helped create a positive response to the turmoil in the community, helped to connect Minnesota with the events in Alabama and Mississippi and engaged both blacks and whites in the larger struggle for equality.
A Minnesota homecoming
Johnson became friendly with Minnesota’s liberal political leaders: Minnesota Representative Alpha Smaby, Minneapolis Mayor Arthur Naftalin (who she worked for as an executive assistant and as a legislative and community liaison), Paul Wellstone (who decided to run for the Senate after Johnson, who was approached as a candidate, declined) and U.S. Representative Martin Sabo, whom she credits with championing her election to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in 1971.
Johnson was already a familiar name on campus. When students took over Morrill Hall in 1969 to demand an African American studies program, she became one of its first faculty members, involved with training teachers to deal with African American issues as Minneapolis schools approached desegregation.
When her husband was transferred to Denver in the mid-1970s, Johnson took a breather for six months and simply skied. “I didn’t know anybody,” she remembered. But you can bet the word got out. Soon she was campaigning for George Brown, who was elected as Colorado’s first African American lieutenant governor. Johnson was tapped as his executive assistant. “A wonderful job! We became involved in a lot of really important things, more firsts—like connecting black contractors with the state,” she said.
When her marriage ended, she returned with her kids to Houston, where she served as office manager for her brother’s re-election campaign. “But I just love Minnesota; this is home,” she declared. “You can almost pick up where you left off.”
Which she did, returning to the University of Minnesota to teach and do research for the College of Education on the image of the University in the African American community. Her inclusive manner and her expertise led to her 1992 appointment as associate vice president for academic affairs with special responsibility for minority affairs and diversity. Johnson agreed to stay for three years to work on engaging and retaining minority students and faculty.
In 1996 she “retired” to form Josie Robinson Johnson and Associates, Inc., a service that helps educational institutions resolve diversity issues.
“At Macalester, I’ve worked to help document things the school wanted to do and to learn how students choose their college. I’m not making much money,” she smiled, “but it’s my commitment. I give a lot of time to programs that help children—programs that are not paid.”
One of the programs, Leland-Johnson Common Vision, is named for her daughter, lawyer Patrice Johnson, and the Texas Congressman she served as chief of staff. Both died in a plane crash on a mission to Ethiopia. “The project aims to unite Twin Cities black and Jewish high school kids in a trusting environment to dispel myths and create a model for working together that can help other groups get along,” Johnson explained.
Despite all the progress she’s seen, Johnson recognizes there is still more that needs to be done.
“Even today, women, and particularly women of color, are not really heard,” even on the prestigious boards on which Johnson sits. But in the final analysis, she looks back at her own life and knows, “I’ve been blessed.”