Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, March 30, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Johnson's student life at Virginia Union University

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Partial Transcript: The following interview with Lyman Johnson was conducted on Friday, March the 30th, 1979 at Mr. Johnson's home on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in, uh, Louisville, Kentucky between 11 and 3.

Segment Synopsis: In this section, Johnson describes how he financed his study at Virginia Union University. He says he attended Virginia Union between 1924 and 1927. He did not have a scholarship, but he was paid to work on campus as a carpenter and a painter. He did not make much, but all of his other expenses for college were covered because he was a student worker. Through this, he had his necessities met.

Keywords: Carpentry; College campuses; Financing college education; Groundskeeping; Painting; Student life; Student workers; Virginia; Virginia Union University

Subjects: African-American college students.; African-American universities and colleges.; African-Americans--Economic conditions.; African-Americans--Education (Higher); College attendance; College campuses.; College choice; College students, Black; College students--Economic conditions

00:02:18 - Johnson's family life

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Partial Transcript: And your mother--your mother had died--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his siblings, and where they were at the time of his mother's death. There were only three children living at home during that time: Johnson, his older brother, and his youngest sister. His two older sisters had left. One was teaching in Memphis and the other was married to a preacher who lived in Canada. His youngest sister was sent to live with the married sister in Montreal. Johnson's older brother had a weak heart, so Lyman had to take over nursing his brother and running the house.

Keywords: Brothers; Death; Family life; Family separation; Heart defects; Illnesses; Siblings

Subjects: African-American families; African-Americans--Southern States.; Family histories.; Family--history

00:05:49 - Cooking and agriculture in Johnson's childhood

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Partial Transcript: Did you also cook?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses how his he learned to cook during his brother's illness, when he had to take over running the family home. He says cooking was harder back then, because he had to make everything from scratch and over a wood stove. Johnson also talks about how they had their own milk and eggs from their livestock. There is a brief interruption, where someone else joins the men's conversation. After that, Johnson goes on to talk about all of the food they would grow in their garden, including peas, yams, beans, corn and peanuts. The discussion of peanuts leads him into a story about how his father would let him and other boys go home during the lunch hour and eat the peanuts that they had left to dry in the barn loft.

Keywords: Baking; Beans; Biscuits; Chickens; Cooking from scratch; Cornbread; Cow feed; Eggs; Gardening; Gardens; Growing corn; Learning to cook; Lunch hours; Milk; Peas; Self-sufficient farming; Slaughtering chickens; Wood stoves; Yams

Subjects: African Americans families; African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; African Americans--Southern States.; Agriculture.; Family histories.; Family--history; Farm life.

00:14:49 - Class and racial differences in the rural south in the early 1900s

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Partial Transcript: Well--well--well now, wa--was--was that the only purpose for which they were grown, for--for the, uh--for cow feed and for boy--boy feed?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says that the reason his father grew peanuts was because it was a novelty, a compensation for all the things his children did not have access to because they were black. He says there was not a lot of culture in his small town; the only time he remembers hearing professional music was when the Redpath Chautauqua came through. The poor white people in his town also did not have access to culture, it was only the rich people who had their own libraries and music rooms.

Johnson did not have access to the city library, because of his race. Johnson then tells a story about going to the library when he was home from the University of Michigan. The woman working there did not recognize him as black, so she let him come and check out the books. However, when Johnson came back to return the books, he was not even allowed to enter the yard because the librarian had found out that he was black.

Johnson discusses the joy of being able to enter the library now, and check out whatever books he wants. He says he is delighted with how race relations are improving in his hometown. He believes that the main problem facing black people post-integration are jobs and employment, and having enough money to fully enjoy integration.

Keywords: Access to culture; Class divisions; Daughters of the Confederacy; Integration; Jobs; Passing (racial identity); Race division; Redpath Chautauqua; Unemployment

Subjects: Academic libraries.; African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Southern States.; African-Americans Segregation; Discrimination.; Race discrimination.; Racism; Segregation.

00:28:25 - The end of Johnson's father's life

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Partial Transcript: So when you were growing up you had to uh make your own entertainment, you had to make your own culture and, uh, your father--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes how his father and mother tried to bring them up with as much culture as they could, to keep the children psychologically healthy. Johnson marvels at his father's ability to raise all nine children on $100 a month, and says that he was respected by both black and white people. Johnson's uncle and brother moved to be closer to his father near the end of his life. Johnson discusses his father's view on alcohol, and how he did not allow drinking in his house and on his property.

Keywords: Alcohol; Brothers; Elderly; End of life; Family; Poverty; Respectability politics

Subjects: African Americans families; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; African Americans--Southern States.; Family histories.

00:36:00 - Johnson's experience with racial discrimination in healthcare in the late 1940s

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Partial Transcript: D-d-do you regret that your father lived before, in a sense, before the time of full civil rights for black people?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson tells the story of the racial discrimination that he faced when trying to get his father an operation that he needed. His father had the operation at the white hospital but was not allowed to stay and recover at the hospital, even though he had nowhere else to go. Johnson had to call the African American doctor in town, who took him into his office for the night until they could take him to an integrated hospital in Nashville.

Johnson then goes on to talk about the ways in which the hospitals in the area changed over the next few years. He says the Hill-Burton Act gave the county hospital money to improve and modernize, and that became the biggest hospital in the town. Because the hospital received federal money, they had to take care of all sick patients, regardless of race. This meant that, five years after his father's operation, his uncle was able to have the operation at the county hospital and was treated well by the doctors. Johnson says none of this would have happened without the federal government intervening.

Keywords: County hospitals; Discrimination in healthcare; Federal law; Government intervention; Healthcare; Hill-Burton Act; Hospitals; Improvement in healthcare; Integration in hospitals; Local hospitals; Modernization; Rural healthcare; Rural hospitals; Segregated hospitals; Surgery

Subjects: African American physicians; African Americans--Health and hygiene; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions--To 1964.; African Americans--Southern States.; Integration; Race discrimination.; Racism

00:45:01 - Johnson's thoughts on the politics of integration

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Partial Transcript: Would it have happened if they hadn't been forced to?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his frustration with people complaining about federal government intervention. He says that without the federal government's help, black people would still not have full rights. Johnson talks about his role on the Board of Education, and how people are still complaining to him about busing for integration.

Johnson was quoted in a newspaper in Ohio saying he didn't care about local people's "bellyaching" about busing, when they are unwilling to address race inequality in the school system on their own. In the newspaper, Johnson said that the school district broke the law and had to pay the price, like any criminal. When people from the school system complained about his quote in the newspaper at a Board of Education meeting, Johnson said that he wouldn't take it back, and would say it again to their faces that they needed to pay for their past sins.

Keywords: Board of education; Busing; Discrimination law; Federal government; Federal law; Legal consequences; Louisville (Ky.); Political confrontations; Politics; School boards; School systems

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Southern States.; Busing for school integration; Civil rights--Law and legislation; Education; Integration; School integration--Kentucky; Segregation in education.

00:49:45 - Johnson's thoughts on race relations in the North and the South

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Partial Transcript: Do, do you c--do you consider the South a good place for the black man to live now?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says that he thinks the South is a better place for black people to live than the North is, after forced integration. The levels of unemployment in the North for black people are so high that Johnson thinks they would have better quality of life living as farmers in the South. Johnson says that now, for the most part, Southern white people are kind and polite to him and his wife. He says that white people in the North are cold, and don't care much about the lives of black people. He says that the only reason white Northerners weren't historically as cruel toward black people as white Southerners is that historically there weren't as many black people in the North as in the South.

Johnson talks about a friend who visited Canada, and loved how kind the white people were to him there. Johnson tells his friend about how Canadian settlers killed off the indigenous people, so they wouldn't have any race problems. The only reason they don't have race problems in Canada is because they killed the non-white people. Johnson also says that the only reason they don't have segregation is that it would be too expensive to build separate facilities, because black people come through so rarely. Johnson says that in places in Canada where there are large populations of black people, they are treated badly.

Keywords: African Americans in the North; Agricultural life; Canada; Geographical differences; Ghettos; Indigenous genocide; Indigenous people in Canada; Race in Canada; Racial majorities; Racial minorities; Southern African Americans; Southern life; Travel

Subjects: African Americans--Conduct of life.; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Social Conditions--1975-; African Americans--Southern States.; Discrimination in employment.; Neighborhoods.; Segregation.; United States--Race relations.

00:56:20 - Johnson's views on race and capitalism

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Partial Transcript: Why--why--why did the, uh--why did Canada, uh, acquire a reputation before the Civil War of being paradise for the slave?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses the fact that slavery was not profitable in the North because the system of slavery didn't work in the industrial North. He says that he didn't think that Northerners would have pushed for abolition if slavery was profitable in the North. Johnson says he has doubts and issues with capitalism, because profit always comes before morality in the capitalist system. Johnson goes on to say why slavery wasn't profitable in the North. The weather in the North was not conducive to year-round agriculture, so keeping and feeding slaves all year when they could only work for part of it would actually cost Northerners money. Johnson says that now, you need people who read and write to work machinery. There is now a capitalist interest in educating people, so they can become part of the workforce.

Keywords: African Americans in Northern States; Agricultural economy; American capitalism; Capitalism; Education; Geographical differences; Industrialization; Money; Morality; Profit; Southern agriculture; Weather; Workforce

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Societies, etc.; African Americans--Southern States.; Slavery--United States.

01:02:01 - Johnson's experience in the military

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Partial Transcript: The biggest joke of it all was that, uh, back in the, the, in the '40s in World War--in World War II, when I was up at Great Lakes, they wouldn't send me overseas to do any work in the--in the--in the, uh, military...

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about his experience in the Navy. Johnson was recruited into the Navy to teach illiterate black men to read and write, so they could be sent overseas. Johnson said that during his time in the Navy, there were only twelve black officers and that the Navy only made them officers so that civil rights organizations wouldn't complain. Johnson talks about a man he knew who was incredibly well-educated, qualified and put together, who was technically an officer but had no authority. He was not even allowed authority over the African American camps.

Johnson said his time in the military was frustrating because he was forced to teach men to read when the government should have made sure that they got an education as children. However, he also knew this was a good opportunity for many southern black men to learn to read and improve their lives. He said he gave a speech to the black men at his camp and told them that they had Hitler to thank for getting them off the farm and into the war effort. Johnson was then reprimanded by his higher-ups for giving that talk.

Johnson said that integration was instituted rapidly and efficiently in the Navy after Truman ordered it in 1945. Johnson said that before integration, black men were only allowed to work as a steward in the officer's quarters, or in the kitchen for the Navy. He tells a story about a man named Doorey Miller, who was a black man sent to Japan in 1943. The boat that he was on was attacked, and most of the white men were killed or injured. Doorey came out of the kitchen and onto the deck, and then shot down some of the Japanese planes, and got a Medal of Honor from the president for rescuing that ship.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler; African American poverty; African American soldiers; American soldiers in Japan; Civil rights organizations; Illiteracy; Industrialization; Integration of military; Literacy; Medal of Honor; Military service; Military training; Minority populations; Navy; Overseas military service; Southern poverty; Tokenism; WWII; World War II

Subjects: African American veterans.; African Americans--Civil rights; Discrimination.; Integration; Race discrimination.; Teaching; United States--Armed Forces--African Americans; World War, 1939-1945; World War, 1939-1945--Veterans.

01:27:52 - Johnson's views on war

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Partial Transcript: How did you feel going into service and fighting for a government that you could not at least support 100 percent?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about how he felt working for a government that treated black people so poorly. He believed that black men and white men should work together to protect American civilization, and afterwards black men should fight for their own rights.

Johnson then talks about his views on war in general. He opposes war, and thinks that it is unnecessary. He says that hot-headed men bring it on themselves. Johnson discusses his opinions on the events that led up to World War II, and whose fault he thinks the war was.

Keywords: A. Phillip Randolph; Adolf Hitler; Colonialism; Double V; European history; European politics; Industrialization; Pacifism; Profit; Pullman porters

Subjects: African American veterans; African Americans--Civil rights; United States--Armed Forces--African Americans.

01:37:27 - Johnson's experience as a high school teacher

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Partial Transcript: 1935, '36, the Board of Education, the superintendent and, uh, his administrative staff had me dressed down at the Board of Education one time for being considered a war monger.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about how while he was teaching Social Studies during the late 1930s, he made a comment about how the United States should go over and confront Hitler. He was called in front of the superintendent for saying this and being a "war-monger." Johnson didn't want to stick to the book like he was told, because he thought that the book was wrong. He says that education isn't just reading what someone else wrote, but analyzing and being critical of someone else's ideas.

Johnson talks about how he was constantly in danger of losing his job, but he was able to get away with it. He said he thinks that the white people thought of him as occupying a token position. Johnson said he wanted to be rational about this situation; that if he was going to be a token he might as well put his position to good use. He talks about the time he challenged the superintendent, when he wrote an article attacking him in the newspaper for not integrating black teachers when he integrated black students.

Keywords: Board of Education; Domestic servants; Education; Educational magazines; Kentucky; Political opinions; School boards; Superintendents; Textbooks; Theory of education; Tokenism; WWII; World War II

Subjects: African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Legal status, laws, etc.; School integration--Kentucky; Segregation in education--Kentucky; Segregation.; Teachers; Teaching; World War, 1939-1945

01:54:12 - Johnson's views on integration policy and personal experience with segregation

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Partial Transcript: Who reversed that policy or modified it? Was it--did Carmichael do that or was it--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says that he also got reprimanded by the Board of Education because he was telling his students that he hated the Southern judges and prosecutors. He said he had no choice but to have utter contempt for them because of how much they had held him, and other black people, back from having equal opportunities with their white peers.

Johnson talks about where he was when he heard about the Brown v. Board decision. He remembered a white, Southern board member telling him, "Mr. Johnson, we are going to have problems now." Johnson responded by telling him that if the white men complied, and went along with the law, they would have no more problems.

Johnson then talks about his own experiences with segregation in transportation. He talks about taking the train from Detroit to Tennessee, and having to switch to the back car when they passed the Ohio River, back into the South. Johnson says that the segregation in Birmingham was worse than what he had seen anywhere else. The black restrooms didn't have a partition between the men's and women's restrooms. He said that he couldn't imagine the white people's restrooms being like that, and he remembers that it struck him how inhumane it was that the white people would design spaces for black people that looked like this. Johnson then mentions going to Governor Happy Chandler, and asking him if he truly thought that these were separate but equal facilities.

Keywords: Birmingham (Ala.); Board of Education; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Federal law; Happy Chandler; Local judges; Passing (racial identity); Plessy v. Ferguson; Reactions to integration; Segregated bathrooms; Segregation on buses; Segregation on trains; Separate but equal; Southern judges; Trains

Subjects: African Americans-- Education.; African Americans--Civil rights--Southern States; African Americans--Legal status, laws, etc.; African Americans--Social conditions--To 1964; Segregation in education; Segregation in transportation

02:24:45 - Johnson talks about being able to pass as white

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Partial Transcript: So you have been able, uh, to pass for white, at least briefly.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about going to visit the University of Kentucky. The man who was showing him around said that he should just say he was from South America, instead of causing fuss by attempting to attend the University as a black student. The interviewer asks him if he ever tries to pass as white, to make it easier for himself. Johnson said that he never has and he knows that, because of his features, white people would find him out eventually. Johnson says he has been asked by both black and white people why he doesn't give up his quest for racial justice, not tell anyone what his race is, and just enjoy his life. He said that the only reason he has ever tried to pass was for "research purposes"- to sneak into white quarters, to see how much better they were than black ones, or to talk to white people who don't know his race.

Keywords: Activism; Passing (racial identity); Social justice

Subjects: African American college students.; African Americans--Education (Higher).; African Americans--Race identity.; African Americans--Southern States.

02:30:09 - Johnson's thoughts on civil disobedience

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Partial Transcript: When I went down here to this L & M Station, you know where 10th and Chestnut, L & M used to be--used to be trains just stacked up there like everything.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about going to the train station and going to see the white people's area. He said it was sparkling clean, but the janitors had left their mops and cleaning supplies out in the black people's area, and nobody was ever reprimanded.

Johnson then talks about his philosophy on civil disobedience. He says that disobeying a law you don't agree with is never bad, unless you break it and are unwilling to face the consequences. Johnson says that he has never been jailed for protesting. Johnson then talks about a white man he knew, a Presbyterian seminary student who went out to join the protests with Lyman in the early 1960s. The seminary student said that he knew Johnson needed help from white people. Johnson says that white people must show other white people what the right thing to do is. Johnson said that white people who got to close to him were often targeted by other white people.

Johnson talks about going to a protest with his daughter. Police came and arrested some of the protestors, but not either of them. The interviewer asks if he thinks it was intentional, that they didn't want to arrest Johnson and have people rally around him. Johnson says he doesn't think so, he just thinks it was chance.

Keywords: Allies; Breaking the law; Civil disobedience; Cross burning; Demonstrations; Louisville (Ky.); Misdemeanors; Passing (racial identity); Protests; Seminary students; Train stations; White allies

Subjects: African Americans--Southern States.; Civil rights demonstrations; Civil rights movements--United States; Police officers; Race relations--Kentucky; Student protestors

02:49:22 - Johnson's young adult life

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Partial Transcript: Could we backtrack just very quickly to finish up? Uh, you finished high school what year?

Segment Synopsis: The interviewer asks about Johnson's experience after he graduated high school.

[The remainder of the recording is unintelligible.]