Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, March 23, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Visiting his niece in the South / Experience of life in the South for African Americans and women

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Partial Transcript: The f--(clears throat)--the following interview with Lyman Johnson was conducted on Friday, March the twenty-third, 1979 between 2:30 and 6 in the afternoon at the home of Lyman Johnson.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses visiting one of his nieces at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She had been raised in the North and did not initially want to live in the South because of the overt racism. Her grand aunt offered to pay for her schooling if she went to a southern college. She stayed in the South because she married a doctor who was able to set up a practice because his father was a professor. When Johnson visited her, he saw how life was good for her as long as she stayed on the college campus. His niece told him that she would talk for him because his civil rights advocacy would get them in trouble in the South. Johnson describes how women were not allowed to stay on the college campus despite attending a conference. Some elements of racism in the South are also described throughout the discussion. He talks briefly about Rosa Parks standing up against this racism, in contrast to his niece who wanted to stay silent.

Keywords: Civil rights advocacy; Families; Nieces; Protests

Subjects: African American college students.; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Discrimination.; Family histories.; Family--history; Fisk University.; Parks, Rosa, 1913-2005.; Racism; Tuskegee Institute.; United States--Race relations.; Women in higher education.

00:10:25 - Personal experiences with segregation

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Partial Transcript: Isn't that human nature? See, Rosa Parks, as you said, had nothing to lose.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses how not protesting is viewed by the oppressors as silent agreement, and gives multiple examples of segregation. The first example is of segregation in the Louisville Free Public Library system. He and a group of people were invited to a Board of Trustees meeting at the main library. They were escorted directly to the meeting room because black people weren't otherwise allowed in the library. It didn't occur to the Board that the black citizens didn't like the segregation because they never complained. He also discusses when he left his hometown to go to boarding school and the only way to get there was a segregated train, which meant silent agreement to the segregation. Another example of segregation was when he and two companions were coming back after finishing college. They stopped at a restaurant that provided them the same service but made them eat in the kitchen. He discusses a fourth example of segregated treatment when he was invited to a conference of labor leaders at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. There was a complicated process of allowing him as a black man to enter the hotel. When he entered and left on the elevators, the black women (former students of his) who operated the elevators were afraid of losing their jobs because he rode the elevators designated for white people. He does not condemn these former students for cooperating with white people but does condemn his niece for attempting to "muzzle" him because she was educated and he thought she should have shown better leadership.

Keywords: Brown Hotel; Dr. C.H. Parrish; Dr. G.D. Wilson; James Graham Brown; Jim Crow; Jim Crow laws; John L Lewis; John L. Lewis; Labor leaders; Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL); Racial slurs; The Brown Hotel

Subjects: AFL-CIO; African Americans--Segregation; Ashland (Ky.); Discrimination.; Lewis, John L. (John Llewellyn), 1880-1969.; Louisville (Ky.); Louisville Free Public Library.; Mt. Sterling (Ky.); Race discrimination.; Richmond (Va.); Segregation; Segregation in transportation; Segregation.; United States--Race relations.

00:30:10 - Discussion of Tuskegee, family, hometown, and race relations

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Partial Transcript: It took a brave person, though, didn't it, to, to, to do what you are suggesting she should have done.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his niece and her husband, who live at Tuskegee, and his brothers' families. His niece's husband Thomas Campbell had to work for the black community at Tuskegee as well as for the whole community and ended up dying of a heart attack. He describes two of his brothers who lived in New York. He describes how the race relations in Columbia and Tuskegee have improved dramatically, partly because of a series of civil rights laws that Lyndon B. Johnson enacted. He states that some of the white people in the south are glad to be emancipated from their own racist traditions because it allows both races to rise higher. He describes how there was good camaraderie between races as long as African Americans held the belief that they were inferior, but that to some extent this good feeling still held after they abandoned pronouncements of superiority and inferiority. He tells the story of a student who attended the same school as him appealing to a white senator to get funding for his education.

Keywords: Civil rights; LBJ; Lyndon B. Johnson; Race relations; Tuskegee (Ala.)

Subjects: African American physicians; African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Civil rights--Southern States; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Legal status, laws, etc.; African Americans--Southern States.; Civil rights--Law and legislation; Columbia (Tenn.); Family histories.; Family--history; Johnson, Lyndon B. (Lyndon Baines), 1908-1973; Tuskegee Institute.; United States--Race relations.; United States. Civil Rights Act of 1964

00:45:48 - African Americans' survival and progress

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Partial Transcript: You know one interpretation of the Uncle Remus stories is that Brer Rabbit stands for the, uh, the black man and woman who lived in a society of stronger animals, Brer Fox and Brer Wolf, and so on, and he had to survive by his, uh, cunning.

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer and Johnson discuss the Uncle Remus stories and state how if African Americans were smart enough to survive under slavery, they should be able to survive and thrive afterwards. Johnson uses his family as an example, with his grandfather as a slave who bought his own freedom and was an inspiration for Johnson's father who came from poverty to graduate college and wanted Johnson to benefit from his progress. The interviewer suggests that this should be a source of pride for African Americans, that they have been able to survive slavery and make a lot of progress in a relatively short amount of time.

Keywords: Br'er Fox; Br'er Rabbit; Br'er Wolf; Bre'r Rabbit; Brer Fox; Brer Rabbit; Brer Wolf; Tar Baby; Tar Baby story; Tar-Baby; Uncle Remus; Uncle Remus stories

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; Civil rights--Law and legislation; Family histories.; Family--history; Race discrimination.; Segregation; Segregation.; Slavery--United States.

00:50:33 - Race relations with the police / African Americans having authority over white Americans

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Partial Transcript: I got a brother down in Tennessee who has two daughters who are registered nurses.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses a nephew who is on the police force in his hometown and how when Johnson was a kid, the police were the most despised people to the black community. He describes how they would go down in the Black neighborhoods, beat up a man, handcuff him and take him in. His nephew is allowed to arrest both black and white people. Johnson describes a black man in Louisville who attained the status of Major. When he started, he was assigned to direct traffic around a middle school but was instructed not to arrest white people. A white man was going too fast in the school zone and the black policeman tried to get him to stop but the man refused to obey because he was black. This white man went to chief of police to complain about a black man trying to control a white man. Johnson says it takes some whites a lot of time to get used to a black person having authority over a white person. Johnson tells another story about a white child who was being disruptive and was brought back to his classroom by two white kids and two white teachers. His black teacher wrote him up but the white child objected to a black man telling him what to do and the child complained to his parents who then put pressure on the principal to do something about the black teacher. Johnson states that some people resent that he is outspoken on the board of education as a black man. He has been threatened with violence multiple times to get him to resign.

Keywords: Discrimination in law enforcement.; Law enforcement; Police race relations; Power; Power dynamics; Racial profiling in law enforcement.; Racial slurs

Subjects: Family histories.; Family--history; Police; Police-community relations.; Race discrimination.; Race relations--Kentucky; Racism; Teachers; Teachers--Kentucky; Teaching; United States--Race relations.

01:00:49 - Johnson's hometown of Columbia, Tennessee

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what was the population of, uh, Maury County, Tennessee, approximately?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses the racial makeup of his hometown, stating that African Americans made up about one fourth of the population compared to whites. He states that the plantation areas drove away the poor whites because they couldn't compete with slaves, which left the rich whites. After slavery, there were pockets of poor whites and few ex-slaves. The best farming land had plantation owners with many black servants. Johnson describes Maury County as an area that produced corn and hay, with not too much cotton or tobacco. Johnson describes how mule raising was a big industry when he was in his teens and twenties. People from plantation areas came to Maury County to buy mules to bring back to the plantations.

Keywords: "Mule Town"; Columbia, Tennessee; Maury County (Tenn.); Maury County, Tennessee

Subjects: Columbia (Tenn.); Plantations; Slavery--United States.; United States--Race relations.

01:10:38 - Discussion of white privilege

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Partial Transcript: Isn't that one of our national tragedies that, that at that time for the--when the, when the black freedman was subjected to the same kind of life that the poor white had been subjected to since the beginning of this country and even in Europe before that, that they didn't realize that they had common cause?

Segment Synopsis: They discuss the plight of the poor white man and freed black people after slavery. They describe how the system set up the poor whites to think they were superior despite being in the same condition, and thus they weren't allowed to work together to better themselves. He thinks the capitalist system is "rotten to the core." Johnson describes how the current system still favors white people simply because they're white. He mentions a cousin who hasn't accomplished as much as he has but is able to go wherever he wants because he is able to pass for white.

Keywords: Passing (racial identity); Poverty; Racial slurs; White privilege

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Discrimination in education.; Race discrimination.; Racism; United States--Race relations.

01:19:05 - Discussion of the concept of "putting on a coon act"

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Partial Transcript: Lyman, let's--let me go back a minute to, we were talking about the Uncle Remus stratagem, I guess.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes the concept of "putting on a coon act," which is where a black person acts like they like what is happening, putting on an act to cater to white people. The interviewer describes a story where a white man picked up an educated African American hitchhiker. They were stopped by the police outside of a town and this black man "put on a coon act," making up an elaborate story and told it in "coon dialect," and the police believed him and let them through. The black man then immediately went back to his normal standard English. Johnson then tells a story about a time he was waiting tables and other black employees put on "coon acts" to get more tips. A customer asks for a glass and he goes and gets a clean glass, but the customer was mad at him for taking so long. Another black employee showed Johnson what he did instead, which was to grab a dirty glass from another table, and this got him more tips than Johnson. This man showed him another way to get money, by sitting by a door where the white people were coming in and putting on a "coon act."

Keywords: "Coon Act"; "Coons"; "Monkey shine"; "Monkeyshine"; Coon Acts; Coon caricatures; Monkeyshine; Racial slurs; Uncle Remus

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Race discrimination.; Racism

01:39:26 - Johnson's education

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Partial Transcript: Let's, let's review in the remaining few minutes, uh, your education.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes his education. He went to a school that had 1st to 11th grades in the same building, with each grade up until the 8th grade having its own teacher. His father was the principal as well as his math teacher. It was called College Hill School and was the school for African Americans. He describes some of his teachers, including his first grade teacher and the teacher who taught him grammar. Johnson gives his negative opinion on Black English dialect, stating that he thinks it's a "cop out" and that it's not real English. They go on to discuss the physical properties of the school building, including its lack of a dining facility as well as its drinking water facilities, restrooms, and heating system. He describes a party he went to as a teenager and briefly talks about how he didn't date as a young person. He describes having to go to an academy at Knoxville College for people who went to "substandard" schools who were not ready for university because he didn't have the ability to go to 12th grade. He went to Virginia Union University afterwards, having completed some of freshman work at Knoxville College.

Keywords: African American Vernacular English (AAVE); Virginia Union; Virginia Union University

Subjects: African American college students.; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Education.; Baptists.; Black English.; College students, Black; Columbia (Tenn.); Education; Knoxville College; Minorities in higher education; Minorities in higher education.; Presbyterian.; Presbyterians.; Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.)