Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, April 17, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:03 - Interview introduction / Human nature and the immorality of colonization

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Partial Transcript: The following interview was conducted with Lyman Johnson at his home on Muhammad Ali Boulevard on April the seventeenth, 1979, between, uh, three o'clock in the afternoon and six o'clock.

Segment Synopsis: Wade Hall introduces the interview and the time and location of the interview. He begins by asking Lyman Johnson why he thinks human life exists and whether or not we should be good. Johnson says that he does not know why life is here, and that he has tried to work for good his whole life, and lists other historical figures who have done so, but concludes that there must be a counterbalancing evil force which keeps the world in pretty much the same spot as when Johnson and others started. Johnson argues that people should still try to be good because it is good for them and will make their lives better, and cites his elderly father being kept company by a former student whom he had helped years earlier. Johnson pivots to talking about how his theory applies at every level of society, even globally. He says that England would have been better off without colonizing so much of the world to feed their greed and lust for wealth. Instead, Johnson says they could have made more allies or trading partners with foreign countries and people groups. Johnson goes on to describe the mercantilist model of the British Empire and their exploitative trade with India for cotton, which Gandhi famously opposed. He argues that the civil disobedience of the Indian people brought England to her knees, but says that England could have voluntarily treated the Indians fairly and not been put in that predicament to begin with, but instead they were greedy, returning to his point on morality from earlier. He cites Portuguese and Spanish conquest, plunder, and colonization as other examples of the same thing, since both empires could have equitably distributed wealth gleaned from colonization but chose not to. Johnson shifts to talking about King Leopold II of Belgium, whom he wishes is "still roasting in Hell" for his treatment of the Congolese, which included things like mutilation of fatigued workers. Johnson disputes that any of this treatment by supposedly benevolent Western powers can be called Christian. He says the ultimate flowering of this aspect of Western civilization is evident in the actions of Hitler.

Keywords: "Counterbalancing force"; "Psychological payoffs"; Adolf Hitler; Allies; Angola; Belgians; Benjamin Franklin; Black miners; Cecil Rhodes; Congo Free State; Cotton; Cotton goods; Diamonds; Dr. Rayford Logan; England; Gold; Greed; Henri Rousseau; Idi Amin; Illegitimate children; Imperialism; Johannesburg (South Africa); King Leopold II of Belgium; Mahatma Gandhi; Martyrs; Missionaries; Pharmacists; Philosophy; Pope Gregory; Portugal; Presbyterians; Racetracks; Raw materials; Rubber sap; Socrates; Spain; St. Thomas of Aquinas; Surplus goods; Thomas Jefferson; Union Jack; Wade Hall; William Henry Sheppard; Worker mutilations

Subjects: Altruism.; Christianity and civilization; Civilization, Western--History.; Colonization--History.; Ethics.; Existentialism--History.; Great Britain--Colonies.; Imperialism--History.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Western civilization and native peoples

00:20:10 - The destructive tendencies of Western civilization

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Partial Transcript: What, what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if the, uh, the Africans and the Indians and the other, shall I say, colored races of the world had been in the, um, saddle?

Segment Synopsis: Hall and Johnson debate and analyze the negative and destructive aspects of Western civilization. Hall asks what might have happened "if the shoe were on the other foot" and the "colored races" of the world were responsible for colonization and imperialism instead of Europeans. Johnson cites Idi Amin to say that meanness is not determined by color and that horrific violence is not exclusively white races versus black races. He points to contemporary violence between the Irish, which he says black people did not understand, even though similar fighting had occurred in Nigeria. Johnson says that it cannot all be determined by color. Hall goes on to argue that despite the negative consequences and abuses of colonialism, the better aspects of Western civilization are desirable for all countries, to which Johnson immediately retorts "What, concentration camps?" He rebuts that concentration camps like those run by the Nazis are the true flowering and fruition of Western civilization, and he states that all it had produced was geared towards destruction. He mentions the development of ironclad warships and nuclear weapons as examples of this tendency. In regards to medical advances, Johnson agrees that there have been beneficial developments, but argues that these are the byproducts of otherwise nefarious research. He says that if the West really wanted to handle cancer and disease and whatnot, we should be making more medicines than weapons. Johnson says that God gave mankind the tools we need to survive and thrive, but that our greed drives us to self-destruction.

Keywords: Africans; Battleships; Cancers; Civil wars; Concentration camps; Greed; Humanitarian research; Idi Amin; Indians; Ireland; Irish; Irish Civil War; Ironclads; Medicines; Nigeria; People of color; Spanish Armada; The Troubles; United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865.; University of Michigan

Subjects: Civilization, Western--History.; Colonization--History.; Imperialism--History.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Nuclear weapons.; Race and society

00:28:52 - Humanity's lack of moral progress / Morality in economics

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Partial Transcript: D-do you then, when you look at man, you say that you don't say he's made a lot of progress, uh, moral progress, I suppose. Do you despair about the future?

Segment Synopsis: Hall asks Johnson if he despairs for humanity's future because of a perceived lack of moral progress throughout our history. Johnson says that he does not despair because if he does the situation can only get worse. He says the devil works harder than anyone so he has to work just as hard as the devil. He talks about goodness and intelligence, saying he thinks they are distributed across the population and that we will always have some dumb and mean people among us. Johnson says a bad person is selfish and full of avarice, wanting what they did not work for. On the other hand, he says a good person is willing to share with fellow laborers and with those who cannot always provide for themselves, such as people with disabilities. He gives an example of this of two men trying to both eat one pot of beans. Johnson argues that economics are at the core of his morality in a certain sense. He says virtuous business practices ought to attract customers, but that this does not always happen. He cites a tire salesman who charged him more than the retail price for a spare tire that he knew Johnson had to have. Johnson says morality ought to be at the center of economics, but that people are often corrupt and greedy instead, such as a lawyer who steals from an estate under his or her care.

Keywords: Avarice; Bad; Beans; Business; Consumers; Corruption; Despair; Devil; Dishonest; Economics; Estates; Evil; Fairness; Fish; Fishing; Good; Goodness; Greed; Intelligence; Laborers; Lawyers; Laziness; Lazy; Morality; Selfishness; Service stations; Sharing; Shysters; Spare tires

Subjects: Altruism.; Economics--Moral and ethical aspects--Congresses.; Ethics.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Religion

00:40:12 - Thoughts on organized religion

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Partial Transcript: What, uh--of, of what value is organized religion?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his views on the value of organized religion. He talks about why he himself is a member of a church, despite not always agreeing with their message. He talks about organized religion's effect on society.

Keywords: Aculturing; Behavior; Beliefs; Children; Christianity; Church membership; Civilized; Culturing; Cutting corners; Discipline; Easter; God; Hope; Jesus Christ; Messages; Morality; Organized religion; Preachers; Principles; Society; Sunday school; Value; Watered down

Subjects: Churches; Ethics.; Religion

00:48:04 - Beliefs about superstition and rationalism

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Partial Transcript: Most people--isn't it true that people cannot rationally accept his own annihilation or non-being or, or death?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses people's beliefs in superstitions, telling a story about a man from his hometown of Tennessee who believed in ghosts. He talks about his thoughts on rationalism, religion, and biology.

Keywords: Beliefs; Biology; Children; Death; Explanations; Friedrich Nietzsche; God; Ignored; Irrational; King Tutankhamun; Parents; Proof; Reason; Scopes Monkey Trial; Scopes Trial; Snake handling; The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes; Trees; Union College; Universe; University of Michigan; White people

Subjects: Apparitions; Churches; Ghosts.; Haunted encounters; Haunted houses; Haunted places.; Rationalism.; Religion; Spirits; Supernatural.; Superstition.

01:06:20 - Odd citizens of Columbia, Tennessee

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Partial Transcript: This, uh, man back in, uh, Columbia, uh, you called him Mr. Elijah?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson give two examples of odd people from his hometown of Columbia, Tennessee. The first is Mr. Elijah, the man who believed in ghosts, who was said to have murdered someone. The second is a man called Mr. Armstrong, who was a Sunday school teacher and businessman, who Johnson admired as a child because he perceived him as rich.

Keywords: Businessmen; Coins; Columbia (Tenn.); Crowbars; Dead; Killed; Misfits; Money; Mr. Armstrong; Mr. Elijah; Murders; Odd; Parents; Rattling; Real estate; Rich; Role models; Stories; Sunday school

Subjects: Apparitions; Childhood; Churches; Ghosts.; Haunted encounters; Haunted houses; Haunted places.; Spirits; Supernatural.; Superstition.

01:14:49 - Life in Richmond, Virginia and other black cultural centers in the South

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Partial Transcript: Uh, in, uh--in Richmond...

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about campus and downtown areas of Richmond, Virginia in comparison to other black cultural centers and cities across the South, like Birmingham, Memphis, Knoxville, Nashville, Louisville, and St. Louis. Johnson says that he stuck mostly to campus and seldom went downtown, but thinks Richmond is most similar to Atlanta in that it was steeped in Old South traditions. It also had culture and institutions, like Atlanta's Morehouse College, Spelman College, Morris Brown University, and Clarke University. He says these were close together and built a cultural environment that would boot out the uncultured. Johnson recalls that beyond the cultured black area, as one crossed the boundary into white neighborhoods, they were immediately out of place. He remarks that Tuskegee did not share this phenomenon, because even until 1955 he says, there were not any affluent black areas around the school, just huts and modest housing.

Keywords: Birmingham (Ala.); Campuses; Clarke University; Cultural institutions; Cultured people; Huts; Knoxville (Tenn.); Louisville (Ky.); Memphis (Tenn.); Morehouse College; Morris Brown University; Nashville (Tenn.); Spelman College; Tuskegee University; Uncultured people; Virginia Union University

Subjects: African American universities and colleges.; Atlanta (Ga.); Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Racism--United States.; Richmond (Va.)

01:19:36 - Experiencing and combating segregation in the South

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Partial Transcript: But it was so, uh, so aggravating to me to leave a cultured place here and go out into, into, uh, the lack of culture to get across to the next spot of culture.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes examples of life under segregation, as well as ways that both he and his father resisted. He used to say that it would be better to blindfold yourself before leaving one cultured black home to go to another so that you did not have to experience the world in between. He recalls that, as a child, he was not allowed to go to see movies in theaters, because his father said that no movie or cultural experience could make up for the degradation of sitting in segregated balcony seats. As a result, Johnson says that much of what he knew of movies came from friends. He describes his father as a "fire and brimstone" man who admonished him to not let the white people degrade him. Johnson talks about telling his students at Central High School not to go to a music-making series concert at Memorial Auditorium because, like his father, he argued both to them and to angered school officials that no cultural benefit from the concert could outweigh being treated as unequal and less than human. On another occasion, Johnson recalls going to the Louisville Armory, currently known as the Louisville Gardens, to watch the Ice Follies in about 1946. He had picketed the venue for its segregated seating in the past, and on this trip, he says he ignored the ushers who were directing him and his daughter to the segregated section, and instead went to a sit in an empty row of the white section, which had no one sitting three rows ahead of or behind them. Still, Johnson says they were asked to leave and he declined, then the police asked them to leave and he still refused, and they were finally kicked out, though reimbursed for their tickets. At school the next day, he says some of his students were also there and saw him and his daughter being thrown out and teased him for it, but Johnson retorted that had they all refused to sit in the segregated seating, the ice rink would have lost a lot of money. He recalls his dad as being somewhat radical for his time. He taught him that he had every right a white man did, and that he should not cooperate with segregation unless self-segregating was absolutely necessary. Johnson, again reflecting on segregated balconies in theaters, recalls that they were referred to as "buzzard roosts" in highly racialized terms.

Keywords: "Buzzard roosts"; "Music-making series concert"; "Self-segregating"; Balconies; Central High School; Columbia (Tenn.); Cooperation; Cops; Ice Follies; Jim Crow; Knoxville (Tenn.); Louisville Armory; Louisville Gardens; Memorial Auditorium; Movie theatres; Police; Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies; Superintendents; Ushers; Western movies

Subjects: Civil disobedience--United States.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Louisville (Ky.); Racism--United States.; Segregation--United States.

01:39:00 - Segregation in Louisville, Kentucky and classism in the black community

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Partial Transcript: What--what kinds of cultural things? We're talking about the culture of Richmond, Atlanta, Knoxville, and so on.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about culture and segregation in Lexington and Louisville, as well as the ways that class and classism functioned in the black community. He says that the major cultural center for black people, besides the university, was the black church, and that they would frequently have esteemed speakers, politicians, and singers such as Dorothy Maynor in attendance. He recalls that in the 1950s and 1960s, they had several events at Memorial Auditorium but that they declined to set up a whites-only section in support of segregation. Their events were general admission. Johnson says that, in those days, you could actually sit wherever you wanted in a Lexington or Louisville streetcar or bus - it was only on rides between the cities that seating was segregated in accordance with state law. He says that neither town actually had municipal laws or ordinances for segregated public transportation. Johnson goes on to talk about black clubs and high-society events he attended in college or in other towns, reflecting on how interesting it is to see the culture of the affluent rub off on the culture of the servant. At the Brown Hotel, Johnson says cultural activity was centered on the goings-on of white high life, but all of the wait staff was black. When black folks threw their own parties, they wanted to create the same atmosphere. He says that he never spent much time working as a waiter, but those who did knew more about high class parties from their work experience, though they might not have had the same access to black professional social groups. Johnson argues that, on the whole, classism never really took hold in the black community, because racism, segregation, and white oppression did not differentiate between a rich black man and a poor black man. As an example of this, he says that most stores would not let black people try on clothes. Stewart's and Selman's in Louisville were both guilty of this. Instead, Johnson says that black customers had to give the attendants their measurements and wait for them to get the clothes. Even then, there were no returns. He talks about his wife's reaction to the practice when she moved up from Nashville in 1937, which she says was a better town because they at least let black people open charge accounts. That way, a black customer could take an item home and try it on, then pay for it later if it fit or return it if it did not. Johnson says that Stewart's later decided to extend him the "privilege" of opening a charge account around 1942. At that time, he estimates that there may have been roughly ten black people in Louisville who had similar charge accounts and they were likely doctors or lawyers, all highly esteemed in the black community. Regardless, Johnson says he rejected the offer on principle.

Keywords: Black churches; Black professionals; Charge accounts; Doctors; Dorothy Maynor; Intracity travel; Intrastate travel; Kaufman-Straus Department Store; Lawyers; Lexington (Ky.); Memorial Auditorium; Municipal ordinances; Nashville (Tenn.); Selman's Department Store; Stewart's Dry Goods; Streetcars; Tennessee State University; The Brown Hotel; Trying on clothes

Subjects: Classism.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Louisville (Ky.); Racism--United States.; Segregation--United States.

01:52:41 - Black clubs and fraternities

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Partial Transcript: What about clubs? Weren't there, weren't there clubs in all the Southern cities that, that black people belonged to? Were you ever a member of a club?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson talks about black clubs, especially fraternities, and his experience with them. He says that he was in a fraternity in college, but black fraternities are more active than white fraternities after college is over. He talks about how graduates would form graduate chapters in the cities where they were working and that fraternity life centered around those groups, not just the colleges. He was in Alpha Phi Alpha, Gamma Chapter in Richmond, Virginia. At the time of the interview, he was in Alpha Lambda Chapter, with lambda denoting that it is a graduate chapter. All together, he says there are four black fraternities and four black sororities, for a total of eight. Johnson says that they all cooperate and compete in a healthy way, trying to out-do the accomplishments of one another. In the 1930s and 1940s, Johnson says that they could not use white spaces like Holiday Inns, so their events were crammed into smaller, black-only spaces. He tells a story about the 1935 Alpha Phi Alpha National Convention at Tennessee State University, which he attended. The interview is concluded.

Keywords: 1935 Alpha Phi Alpha National Convention; Alpha Kappa Alpha; Alpha Phi Alpha - Alpha Lambda Chapter; Alpha Phi Alpha - Gamma Chapter; Birmingham (Ala.); Black clubs; Black fraternities; Black sororities; Delta Sigma Theta; Graduate chapters; Jeffersonville (Ind.); Kappa Alpha Psi; Miles College; Miles Memorial College; Omega Psi Phi; Phi Beta Sigma; Richmond (Va.); Robert E. Lee Inn; Sheridan Seelbach Hotel; Sigma Gamma Rho; Tennessee State University; Washington (D.C.); Zeta Phi Beta

Subjects: African American Greek letter societies.; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Louisville (Ky.); Segregation--United States.