Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, May 8, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Impact on history / Role of historians

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Partial Transcript: The following tape with Lyman Johnson was made on Wednesday, May the 9th, between ten in the morning and one o'clock in the afternoon at the home of Lyman Johnson on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains why he has refused to write the history of his life. He contends that those who make history rarely write accurate portrayals of their actions. He also shares that he does not have the time to sit and write about what he has done because he is busy making history. Johnson explains that the job of the historian is to sift through the subject’s life to find what will be worthwhile to posterity. He talks about his sense of humor and how he likes to make jokes about his arthritis and about sex education. Hall emphasizes the role of humor in history and culture and Johnson explains that historians often share the major accomplishments of a civilization or culture and omit the seemingly normal details. Johnson argues that history should include a fair portrayal of the culture so that posterity will have a more accurate picture of the past.

Keywords: Apostles; Countries; Followers; History; History teachers; Hometowns; Human traits; Humor; Jesus Christ; Jokes; Legacies; Plato; Posterity; Practical jokes; Recorders; Socrates

Subjects: Arthritis; Autobiographies; Biographies; Children; Civil rights workers; Civilizations that shaped our world; Culture; Historians; Louisville (Ky.); Objectivity; Sex instruction; Students; Subjectivity; Teachers; Teaching

00:17:01 - Outdoor bathrooms

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Partial Transcript: See I've been trying to get you to remember, uh, little things.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses growing up with an outdoor bathroom at his home in Columbia, Tennessee. Their toilet had three different sized holes and they seldom had toilet paper to clean themselves. Johnson shares that they would use items like newspaper instead. Johnson grew up with several siblings and he remembers carrying a lantern to the toilet for his sisters so they would not have to walk alone at night. After his sister got married and came back home to visit, Johnson recalls that it was embarrassing for her to have to use the restroom outside after she had gotten used to an indoor bathroom. Johnson recalls his parents’ strictness surrounding the use of vulgar language and how he was not permitted to use "four letter words." His parents emphasized that using the toilet was not vulgar, but was a natural function of the body. Johnson then discusses his use of laxatives, such as castor oil, as a way to ‘open up the works.’

Keywords: Bodily functions; Corncobs; Country expressions; Hometowns; Household remedies; Humor; Jokes; Lanterns; Outdoor toilets; Politeness; Siblings; Sisters; Vulgar languages; Working medicine

Subjects: Bathrooms; Castor oil; Childhood; Columbia (Tenn.); Embarrassment; Families; Laxatives; Outhouses; Parents; Toilet paper; Toilets

00:26:08 - Story of family dinner

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Partial Transcript: Can you--uh, w, when you were growing up, was there ever a time when everybody, all of your brothers and sisters were at home?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes growing up with seven siblings, his parents, and his uncle in the same house. He shares a story of his whole family gathering together for dinner one night. Before eating, Johnson’s father gave a lengthy blessing. Johnson grew tired during the prayer and laid his head down on his empty bowl. The weight of his head cracked the bowl and pieces flew all over the kitchen. Johnson’s father backhanded him under his chin and the blow lifted him from his chair and out the back door. Johnson’s father then continued with the prayer.

Keywords: Blessings; Brothers; Family dinners; Humor; Jokes; Prayers; Praying; Punishments; Siblings; Silverware; Sisters

Subjects: African Americans--Families; African Americans--Religion; Childhood; Children; Corporal punishment; Discipline of children; Grace at meals; Parenting; Parents

00:31:26 - Disciplinary whippings

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Partial Transcript: Were you ever whipped when you were a child?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls being whipped for breaking the rules several times as a child. He shares one story of running through the house and playing with his older brother. His older brother tried to throw water on Johnson and it splashed up against the wall and all over the floor. Their father came inside and saw the water and asked Johnson’s brother how the water got there. His brother blamed Johnson for the spilled water and Johnson was whipped several times. Johnson recalls another whipping he received, this one due to losing his father’s carpentry tools. Johnson borrowed his father’s saw and couldn’t remember where he left it. When Johnson finally told him that he had used the saw and was unsure of where it was, Johnson’s father whipped him for losing his tool. Several days later, Johnson’s father realized that he left his own tool outside and apologized to Johnson. Johnson argues that as long as one is not cruel, paddling disciplines children and teaches them respect for rules and regulations. While working as the assistant principal at the junior high school, Johnson punished several children by paddling them.

Keywords: Brothers; Carpentry; Cruelty; Household rules; Humiliation; Infractions; Messes; Misbehavior; Paddles; Paddling; Physical punishments; Playing; Procedures; Punishments; Razor straps; Regulations; Respect; Rules; Running; Siblings; Spankings; Switches; Tools; Wallpapers; Whippings

Subjects: Apologies; Assistant school principals; Carpentry--Tools; Childhood; Corporal punishment of children; Discipline of children; Families; Parenting; Parents; Saws; Students; Teachers

00:46:54 - Education after graduating from Virginia Union

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Partial Transcript: Lyman, let's um, let's go back to Richmond.

Segment Synopsis: After earning his degree from Virginia Union in 1930, Johnson worked at a small summer resort at Virginia Beach. Johnson applied and was accepted to Yale, the University of Iowa, and the University of Michigan but he chose to attend the University of Michigan. He had intended to go to Yale and believed that he had saved up enough money for room and board; however, he could not afford the one thousand dollar deposit that Yale required. Johnson then discusses the lawsuit that he participated in against the Board of Education, to address the wage gap between African American and white teachers. He shares that African American teachers were more experienced and had earned, on average, higher levels of education than the white teachers.

Keywords: Board of Education; College admissions; College degrees; College rankings; College tuition; Employment; Graduate schools; Graduate students; Lawsuits; Managers; Master's degrees; Northern universities; Room and board; Southern universities; Summer jobs; Summer resort

Subjects: African American college graduates; African American graduate students; African American teachers; African Americans--Education (Higher); Discrimination in employment; Occupations; Richmond (Va.); Universities and colleges--Graduate work; University of Iowa; University of Kentucky; University of Michigan; Virginia Beach (Va.); Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.); Wages; Yale University

00:56:29 - Educational levels of southern universities

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Partial Transcript: Uh, do you think though that since those days, the fact that southern universities have been open to all races, that has had an effect on the educational level of these universities?

Segment Synopsis: Once the University of Kentucky allowed African Americans onto their campus, professors could see a difference in the studying habits of the white students. Prior to the desegregation of their college campus, many white students argued that the African American students would not be able to handle the workload. When the African American students joined in their classes, the white students were more motivated to study because they would have been embarrassed to earn a lower grade than an African American student. Hall extends this argument to all aspects of society, stating that equality encourages competition. Johnson shares a story of an all-white high school bragging that they had won the state championship. Several students at Central High School wrote in letters to the newspaper, arguing that the all-white high school should not be declared the state champions since they had not played all the schools in the state. The administration from the all-white school wrote Johnson a letter stating that they would like to play Central High School’s team in the next season.

Keywords: Athletic rankings; Central High School; College admissions; Competition; Educational level; Grades; High school athletics; Journalists; Motivation; Northern universities; Southern universities; Studying; The Louisville Defender; University work

Subjects: African American college students; African American community; African American journalists; African Americans--Education (Higher).; Civil rights workers; College integration; High school athletes; Newspapers; Students; Universities and colleges--Ratings and rankings

01:05:36 - Thoughts on privilege

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Partial Transcript: Uh, when, uh, when you were born--and this doesn't have to be necessarily with race. It can apply to any category; religion, race, nationality, or whatever.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes growing up thinking that you are inherently better than others as both a handicap and a benefit. Those who are born with certain advantages may not feel any motivation to reach further than they already are. However, for others, advantages can be motivation to live up to what you have inherited. Johnson states that it should be an inspiration for children to see their parents’ success, but it sometimes has the opposite effect. Johnson shares that even though his nephew is highly educated, he is still unemployed and unable to contribute to society. Johnson explains that sometimes successful parents can overshadow their children, who may get discouraged if they can’t live up to that expectation.

Keywords: Advantages; Atherton High School; Ballard High School; Board of Education; Family connections; Incentives; Inheritance; Inspiration; Motivation; Nephews; Reputations; Social responsibility; Traditions

Subjects: African American intellectuals; Childhood; Children; Families; Gross national product; Leadership; Nationality; Parenting; Privilege; Race; Religion; Unemployed

01:17:23 - His father's influence

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Partial Transcript: Well how--how do you account for it, then, that your--that--the fact that your father was successful, that, uh, his children turned out to be successful?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains how his father’s parenting style contributed to his own success. While many with successful parents struggle to make their own way in the world, Johnson’s father kept his children humble as they grew up. As he was preparing to leave for college, Johnson worked in the field for a dollar and a half a day. Johnson’s father saved up the money for him and built up an account. When Johnson began making good marks in college, Johnson’s father would send him some of the money he had built up plowing the field. Johnson shares the story of his cousin who was coddled by his parents and ended up dropping out of college.

Keywords: Account; College; Cousins; Ego; Funds; Grades; Humble; Inheritance; Legacy; Money; Plowing; Punishments; Scriptures; Whippings

Subjects: African American college students; Childhood; Children; College dropouts; Corporal punishment of children; Families; Parenting; Parents; University of Michigan; Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.)

01:20:47 - Attending the University of Michigan

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Partial Transcript: So you went to Michigan, uh, in fall of '30?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes feeling inadequate on the University of Michigan’s campus. Though it was an integrated campus, Johnson still had absorbed the southern tradition that white people were smarter than black people just because of their race. He decided that he would not speak up during discussion periods unless he was called upon, as he was afraid to give an inadequate answer. After his professor told him he would fail the class if he didn’t speak up, Johnson began contributing more and mixing with the white students. In a different seminar class, Johnson recalls standing up to a harsh professor and earning the admiration of the other students in his class.

Keywords: College classes; Economic History of the American Revolution; Generals; Grades; History; Integrated campuses; Offices; Participation; Political science; Professors; Records; References; Southern traditions; White students

Subjects: African American college students; African Americans--Education (Higher).; Battles; Classmates; College campuses; College integration; College majors; Quotations; University of Michigan

01:34:53 - Learning and teaching style

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Partial Transcript: I said, "Well, my idea, my idea is that a--a--a university or a college is to develop in the student self-assurance."

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains his learning style that he picked up from his father and uncle. He believes that education should not be focused on how much you can remember, but instead what thought can you develop within yourself. His strategy as a student was to study, listen, and pay attention to what the teachers have to say. When he began teaching, Johnson focused on stimulating his students as much as possible, to develop their own thoughts. He believes that this stimulation and development improves the quality of your thinking.

Keywords: Attitudes; Audiences; Central High School; Colleges; Development; Independent thinking; Lectures; Memory; Professors; Reactions; Self-assurance; Stimulations; Substitute teachers; Teaching styles; Thoughts; Tutoring; Universities

Subjects: Children; College students; College teachers; Education; Kentucky State College (Frankfort, Ky.); Kentucky State University; Listening; Parenting; Parents; Students; Studying; Teachers; Teaching

01:38:40 - Prejudice against southern universities

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Partial Transcript: This psychological barrier that you had when you went to, uh, Michigan, a barrier that first of all, that you were black and for the first time you were in a, an integrated situation, and secondly that you were a southerner.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses the psychological barrier that he felt while attending the University of Michigan. The professors at northern universities looked down on many southern colleges and universities. Hall shares that he felt a similar psychological disadvantage coming from a southern university. Hall felt that he had received an inferior education. While he was a student at the University of Michigan, Johnson implied to a professor that Fisk University ranked above the University of Alabama. His professor could not understand the positives of Fisk University and the qualities that made it better than the University of Alabama. Johnson explains that a redeeming quality of northern universities was that they wouldn’t hold students’ undergraduate degree against them. Instead, they gave students credit for the credits in their transcript, no matter where the student attended for undergraduate studies. The university would let them take the classes they qualified for and would offer remedial courses if the student was not performing at the appropriate level.

Keywords: African American colleges; College campuses; College credits; College professors; Integrated campuses; Northern universities; Philosophy; Southern universities

Subjects: African American college students; African American universities and colleges; African Americans--Southern States; College integration; College students; Fisk University; Higher education; Universities and colleges--Ratings and rankings; University of Alabama; University of Michigan; Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.)

01:42:41 - Financial aid / Great Depression

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Partial Transcript: Uh, did you have any financial aid when you went to University of Michigan?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson shares that during his second year and a half, he received financial aid. The Depression had set in across the country and the University of Michigan was running on endowments. The University offered financial aid to the students who could not get jobs, and Johnson took this opportunity to continue his studies. He understood that this was the University of Michigan’s way of preventing more people from becoming disenfranchised with the current economic system and turning to communism. Johnson contends that the Great Depression was caused by an inefficient distribution of resources. Rather than give resources to those who needed it, the administration was more concerned with continuing the capitalist system and making a profit. Johnson remembers trying to find a job during the Great Depression; there were always numerous applicants for each teaching position and the schools did not have enough money to hire new teachers. He even applied to work at transportation stations, restaurants, and manufacturing plants, but no one was hiring.

Keywords: Admission; Appalachia; Coal; College campuses; College credits; Endowments; FDR; Farmers; Financial aid; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Great Depression; Greek; History; Iowa; Kentucky; Libraries; Profits; Resources; Wheat

Subjects: Capitalism; Communism; Communists; Depressions--1929; Economics; Franklin D. Roosevelt and the era of the New Deal; Student aid; Teachers; Unemployment; Universities and colleges--Admission; University of Michigan

01:48:33 - Politics in the 1930s / Organizing co-ops

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Partial Transcript: Did you ever attend any, uh, political meetings in the thirties?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses attending political meetings in the 1930s in Detroit. He would leave the University of Michigan campus and go to their labor schools, which Johnson explained were communist organizations. The communist organizations began renting out local auditoriums and challenging university professors to debate with their speakers. Johnson was involved in the formation of a co-op bookstore on campus. Students could bring in their used books to sell and the co-op would take ten percent from the sale. Eventually, the competition went to the legislature to have the co-op shut down. Once the bookstore was closed, Johnson helped to open and run a co-op restaurant. They were able to offer a week’s worth of meals for under four dollars before their business was shut down. Johnson discusses the history of movements that threatened the capitalist system and mentions the cases of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Keywords: Alien laws; American system; Ann Arbor High School; Books; Bookstores; Capitalists; Co-operative businesses; Co-ops; College campuses; Communist outfits; Cooperatives; Court cases; Debates; Dupes; Dwight D. Eisenhower; Emissaries; Expenses; Joseph McCarthy; Labor; Labor schools; Legislature; Meal tickets; Political meetings; Politics; Prices; Professors; Profits; Sedition laws; Speakers; Stores; Used bookstores; Ventures

Subjects: Anarchism; Capitalism; College teachers; Communism; Communist Party of America; Communists; Detroit (Mich.); Economic history; Economics; Restaurants; Sacco-Vanzetti Trial, Dedham, Mass., 1921; Socialism; Socialists; University of Michigan

02:00:32 - Involvement in the Socialist Party

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Partial Transcript: What--what was the name of your organization on campus?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his involvement in the Socialist Party on the University of Michigan’s campus. Their plan was to challenge the entire capitalist system and simply employ people. He contends that the Socialist Party on campus was not promoting foreign ideology but was simply using reasoned out economics to address unemployment. He recalls first being against Franklin Roosevelt’s plan for social security because Johnson thought everyone should earn what they would receive.

Keywords: American society; Bookstores; Businesses; Co-operatives; Co-ops; College campuses; College clubs; Consumption; Demand; Economic system; FDR; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Ideologies; Meetings; Money; Organizations; Production; Products; Profits; Socialist Party; Supply; Theories

Subjects: African American teachers; Capitalism; Economics; Philosophy; Social security; Socialism; Socialists; Teaching; Unemployment; University of Michigan

02:05:05 - United States capitalist system / New system

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Partial Transcript: What saved this capitalist system, or at least saved part of it, uh, in the thirties?

Segment Synopsis: After World War I, Germany was mistreated by both the English and the French. Suffering from intense inflation in the 1920s, they were already struggling by the time the Great Depression reached the United States in 1929. Hitler rose to power by putting people to work; he lowered unemployment in Germany by creating wars, which created jobs. Johnson contends that Franklin Roosevelt’s social programs were inadequate because they simply gave aid to people without them first making a contribution. He believes this aid was meant to appease them into trusting the capitalist system again. Johnson explains how this social aid was similar to ancient Rome and how it led to the general population not working and simply living off of the provisions given to them. Johnson believes that capitalism has brought the United States as far as it could, but it is time to replace it with a socialist system. He describes it as a planned society where everyone works. Johnson explains that subsidizing rent and giving aid without making people work for it ends up making people lazy and unable to support themselves.

Keywords: Consumption; Contributions; Economic systems; FDR; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Ghettos; Government aid; Governments; Great Depression; Handouts; History; Income; Inflation; Labor programs; Market prices; Planned economy; Planned society; Price levels; Production; Provisions; Romans; Social programs; Social security system; Soldiers; Supplies; The New Deal; Votes; WWI; Wars; Wheat; World War I; World War II

Subjects: Anarchists; Capitalism; Depressions--1929; Economics; England; France; Germany; Hitler, Adolf, 1889-1945; New Deal, 1933-1939; Portugal; Rent control; Rent subsidies; Rome; Socialism; Socialists; Spain; Unemployment; United States; World War, 1914-1918; World War, 1939-1945

02:20:43 - Labor schools in Detroit, Michigan / Current economic system

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Partial Transcript: These, uh, s--these, uh, these labor schools, uh, in--in Detroit. I'm--I'm kind of interested in them. What was the--what was the purpose in, uh--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson remembers being very vigilant while going with the Socialist Party to the labor schools in Detroit. He made sure that they were not being duped and declined to sign any cards or papers while they were there. Johnson shares that the leaders of the labor school were hoping to recruit some people from the Socialist Party to use them as missionaries on the University of Michigan’s campus. The Great Depression turned many against the capitalist system and could have prompted a violent revolution. Johnson explains that black intellectuals are more likely to benefit if they go along with the current establishment, rather than be wiped out trying to overthrow the government. They would rather play it safe with the current system and continue hoping that one day their luck will change.

Keywords: College campuses; Communist Party membership cards; Dupes; Emissaries; Foreign ideologies; Great Depression; Herbert Hoover; Hunger March; Labor schools; President Hoover; Signature cards; Socialism; Socialist Party; The Bonus March; Veterans; Violent revolutions

Subjects: African American intellectuals; Capitalism; Communism; Communists; Depressions--1929; Detroit (Mich.); Economics; Revolution; Students; The University of Michigan; Violence

02:27:36 - Ideal society / Past revolutions

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Partial Transcript: But if you had your druthers or if you--if--if you were told that you could make up an ideal society and you--and you were the planner for this ideal society, then you could devise a radically different system--

Segment Synopsis: If he were to design his own society, Johnson would create it completely different than the current system. When Johnson shared his ideas with his friend, his friend told him he would’ve been a threat to society if he was not so old. Johnson’s friend believes in what he is saying but says it does not have a chance of working out in the real world. Hall shares that it seems the only way to radically change society is through violence. Johnson hopes that this change could come peacefully, but if violence is necessary, he thinks the enemy should fire the first shot. He shares details of the 1917 Russian Revolution and how it took ninety-three percent of the population rising up against the other seven percent to bring about change.

Keywords: American capitalism; Economic systems; Enemies; Fidel Castro; Fulgencio Batista; Ideal society; Leon Trotsky; Peasants; Radical ideas; Russian Revolution; Russian czars; Society; Threats; Uprisings; Violent revolutions; Visionaries

Subjects: African American intellectuals; Capitalism; Chiang, Kai-shek, 1887-1975; Economics; Elections; Mao, Zedong, 1893-1976; Revolutions; Soviet Union--History--Revolution, 1917-1921; Violence; Zhou, Enlai, 1898-1976

02:35:36 - Ideal commonwealth

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Partial Transcript: Do you want to stop here--

Segment Synopsis: In his ideal commonwealth, Johnson believes everyone should work. He would like for everyone to get to choose what type of work they will do but it is more important for them to do something constructive. He believes everyone should contribute to the gross national product in some manner. He understands the importance of having artists in society, but thinks that if they are unsuccessful then they should find other ways to contribute to society.

Keywords: Actors; Art; Clothing; Consumption; Contributions; Economic systems; Food; Ideal commonwealth; Job titles; Labor; Planned economy; Production; Professors; Shelter; Societal structures; Society; Value; Wheat; Work; Writers

Subjects: African American leadership; Artists; Communities; Culture; Economics; Family histories; Gross National Product; Parents; Privilege; Wealth