Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, June 13, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - The Atlanta System

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Partial Transcript: --she said she was a graduate of Atlanta, uh, University, which was one of the three, uh, Baptist colleges established in the South.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses higher education for African Americans, focusing on schools in Atlanta. Hall shares details of a book he is reading about the black elite and the colleges and finishing schools they attend. Johnson remembers Ms. Brown from a finishing school in North Carolina. He shares that many African American higher education institutions focused on making sure that they were providing for everyone in their area. In Atlanta however, the universities seemed to be competing with each other to provide the best opportunities for their students. Because the funding for these schools came from church missionary funds, they soon began to reach out to foundations for help. Foundations agreed to finance the schools in Atlanta, but they did not want to give money for duplication purposes. The schools in Atlanta decided to downplay their specific religious denomination and form a complex to continue receiving funding from these foundations. The Atlanta system was a consortium of Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Keywords: African American colleges; African American finishing schools; African American universities; Atlanta Educational Complex; Baptist colleges; Baptists; Black elite; Churches; College campuses; Congregations; Donors; Dr. Brown; Foundations; Methodists; Palmer school; Religious denominations; The Atlanta System

Subjects: African American college students; African Americans--Education (Higher); American South; Atlanta (Ga.); Atlanta University; Atlanta University Center (Ga.); Barber-Scotia College; Clark Atlanta University; Fisk University; Howard University; Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.); Palmer Memorial Institute (Sedalia, N.C.); Roger Williams College; Spelman College; Talladega College; Virginia Union University (Richmond, Va.)

00:10:46 - Uncle Will's racial discrimination incident off campus

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Partial Transcript: Now one of the professors at Morehouse, at the same time that my fa--my uncle was a professor there, was a young man, a PhD from Chicago University and he was teaching sociology.

Segment Synopsis: During his time as a professor at Morehouse College, Johnson's Uncle Will was treated very differently on campus than in the rest of town. Uncle Will became good friends with a younger colleague of his, Dr. Frazier. This younger professor taught sociology; he was scholarly and had a spunky spirit. Johnson’s uncle warned Dr. Frazier not to go downtown without him because he would get killed. While out shopping together downtown, Dr. Frazier began arguing with a sales clerk who had insulted them. More of the sales clerks came over and began shouting at and threatening Uncle Will and Dr. Frazier. Uncle Will and Dr. Frazier were eventually allowed to leave unharmed. Dr. Frazier then described their campus as a cultured prison: on campus, they were treated with respect and had a high culture level, but if they stepped outside they were treated terribly.

Keywords: African American professors; Board of Education; Colleagues; College campuses; Downtown; Edward Franklin Frazier; Negroes; Store clerks; Threats

Subjects: African American scholars; African American teachers; African Americans--Social conditions; Atlanta (Ga.); Communities; Culture; Discrimination; Morehouse College (Atlanta, Ga.); Racism; Shopping; Sociology

00:19:20 - Uncle Will traveling to a student's farm

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Partial Transcript: Now, one other illustration along that line, one of the students in my uncle's class came from a farm about ninety miles south of Atlanta.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson shares another story about his Uncle Will’s time as a professor at Morehouse College. During one of the breaks, Uncle Will traveled to a student’s farm near Atlanta. The farm was located far from the main road and they had to drive on a narrow dirt road for several miles. Their car was stuck behind a wagon pulled by two mules and the student tapped his horn for the wagon to move to the side so their car could pass them. The white men on the wagon jumped out and began threatening Uncle Will and his student.

Keywords: African American college students; African American professors; College breaks; Farmland; Farms; Mules; Threats; Wagons

Subjects: African American teachers; African American universities and colleges; African Americans--Social relations; Atlanta (Ga.); Culture; Discrimination; Morehouse College; Racism

00:26:58 - Family history of poverty

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned the other day how your uncle got to college in Nashville.

Segment Synopsis: While still a slave, Johnson’s grandfather, Dyer Johnson, became proficient in carving wood. Because his work was so excellent, his master would give him a little bit of money. Johnson’s grandfather used this money to first buy his freedom and then his wife’s. They had three children before Johnson’s grandfather passed away. Johnson’s grandmother was an invalid and when her husband passed, all they were left with was a one-room log cabin. Johnson’s father and his siblings lived in extreme poverty as they were too young to work and Johnson’s grandmother was unable to work due to her condition. When Uncle Will was around thirteen, he worked at a local grocery store and he would be paid in food. Sometimes people in their community would leave food on their doorstep to help support them. When Johnson’s father, aunt, and uncle would go to school, they did not have any lunch to bring with them. They would walk home during lunchtime so that others would not know that they did not have food. Johnson’s father was frail when he was younger so Uncle Will took on most of the responsibilities of getting food for the family.

Keywords: Baptist churches; Carpenters; Carpentry; Churches; Donations; Dyer Johnson; Edmund Kelly; Food stamps; Grocery stores; Invalids; Masters; Neighbors; Poverty; Slaveholders; Slaves

Subjects: African American teachers; African Americans--Economic conditions; African Americans--Education; African Americans--Employment; Children of freedmen; Communities; Families; Family histories; Freedmen; Log cabins; Plantations; Religion; Sharecropping; Slavery; Social security; Sorghum; Underground Railroad

00:42:04 - Uncle Will's sharecropping / Higher education

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Partial Transcript: So then, uh, here was Uncle Will trying to--at maybe two or three years--two years younger than my father, and he was the youngest of the three.

Segment Synopsis: Uncle Will was the youngest of three children but was still working to gather the main foodstuffs for his family. When Will got older, he began sharecropping. A white farmer down the road furnished Will with the land and materials to grow sorghum, Will had to provide the labor. Will gave half of all of the sorghum he grew to the white owner, a quarter went to the mill as payment for processing, and Will kept the remaining quarter. Uncle Will went to Roger Williams University and pleaded with the President to allow him to pay his tuition with sorghum that he grew. The President was so impressed with his hard work that he found money to cover Will’s tuition. Uncle Will went on to become a professor at Morehouse College. Johnson then tells a similar story where a black porter worked hard to ensure that a white traveler got the best accommodations. The rich man was so impressed with the black porter that he paid his tuition to attend college.

Keywords: African American professors; Crops; Farms; Foodstuffs; Labor; Mills; Molasses; Mules; Plows; Porters; Poverty; Provisions; Travelers; Tuition; Wagons

Subjects: African American college students; African American universities and colleges; African Americans--Economic Conditions; African Americans--Education; African Americans--Employment; Brown University; Columbia (Tenn.); Families; Morehouse College; Nashville (Tenn.); Roger Williams University; Sharecropping; Sorghum; Traveling

00:56:10 - Family history

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Partial Transcript: So he kind of prepared the way for your father who went up there later?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson’s father was two years older than Uncle Will, but was not physically as vigorous as Uncle Will was. Johnson’s grandmother was an invalid; he was unsure of what exactly she suffered from but described her as having a frailness about her. She was never able to do any work and when her husband passed away, it mainly fell on the children to gather food to eat. Despite growing up in poverty, Johnson’s father and uncle went on to become scholars in in the studies of Greek and Hebrew. Johnson then shares a story of his uncle being punished by his mother, because she was an invalid the beating did not hurt, but Uncle Will pretended that it hurt for her own satisfaction.

Keywords: Charity; Donations; Electricity; Gardening; Gardens; Housework; Invalids; Neighbors; Poverty; Punishments; Switches; Tuition; Whips

Subjects: African American college graduates; African American families; African Americans--Economic conditions; Children; Children of freedmen; Communities; Family histories; Technology

01:05:11 - Grandmother's death / Family grave sites

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Partial Transcript: Now you--your grandmother died w--how long before you were born?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson’s grandmother died in the 1980s and she was buried in Columbia, Tennessee. He shares that a local historian in their county was looking into the history of his family and found the graves of his grandparents in the local cemetery. She also found graves of his grandfather’s children from a previous arrangement. The cemetery they were buried in contained the remains of both white and black people, since there was only one place to bury people in town. A new territory was made later with a wall separating the races, with two separate entrances.

Keywords: Death; Dyer Johnson; Grave markers; Graves; Graveyards; Jill Garrett; Reporters; Rose Hill; Rose Mound; Segregated cemeteries; Slavery; Town historians

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; Burials; Cemeteries; Children of freedmen; Columbia (Tenn.); Grandfathers; Grandmothers; Log cabins

01:15:19 - Burial arrangements / Caring for grave sites

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Partial Transcript: Now, since we're on the subject, Lyman, where are you going to be buried?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson does not want to be buried and plans to donate his body to the University of Louisville Medical School when he dies. His wife was cremated in Louisville and she asked that there not be a shrine for people to visit for her. Johnson discusses caring for the graves of his parents and shares that he would often go and cut the grass and trim the plants around the grave site. He explains that his sister and her husband were buried in Delaware, and while he would like to care for the graves he doesn’t even know where their cemetery is. His other sister and her husband are buried in Louisville and his brother is buried in New York. Johnson does not want others to visit his grave and keep up with it, he would rather just donate his body to the University of Louisville Medical School.

Keywords: Anatomical donations; Ashes; Body bequests; Body donations; Caskets; Contracts; Graves; Human ashes; Human remains; Memorials; Natural burials; Religious orders; Shrines; University of Louisville Medical School

Subjects: Burials; Cemeteries; Cremation; Donations of organs, tissues, etc.; Funeral rites and ceremonies; Louisville (Ky.); Philosophy; University of Louisville; Wives

01:25:43 - Leaving a legacy / Thoughts on religion

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Partial Transcript: But don't you want to leave a presence behind?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains that he has no desire to leave a legacy behind. Like Socrates, he only wishes to be a good teacher. He states that being a good teacher is the only monument that he wants to build for himself. Johnson attended an art show, and in addition to enjoying the bourbon there, he enjoyed talking with several of his old students. Johnson shares that he still has fond memories of his eighth grade grammar teacher, and to him it is less important where she is buried as opposed to the impression that she passed on. He hopes that when he passes on, the upcoming generation that he has affected through his work will remember his name and his actions. He discusses great teachers throughout history and how their names are still well-remembered. Johnson explains that his dislike of religion stems from the desire for immortality. He thinks heaven is a delusion, used as a palliative to the defeated. Johnson prefers to focus on reality and enjoy the present.

Keywords: African American art shows; African American artists; Afterlife; Art shows; Benjamin Franklin; Delusions; Generations; God; Historical figures; Inheritances; Jesus Christ; Memorials; Monuments; Socrates; Students; Teachers; Thomas Jefferson

Subjects: African American teachers; Children; Death; Families; Future life; Heaven; Immortality; Legacies; Present and the past; Religion; Teaching

01:34:48 - Handling Uncle Will's estate

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Partial Transcript: Well now, uh, to show you that it actually did run through my, my, my father and uncle's...

Segment Synopsis: Johnson remembers the passing of his Uncle Will and how he was tasked with dividing Will’s estate among 15 heirs. He shares that his Uncle Will held several city properties that were rented out to white business owners, as well a farm. Johnson explains that he would use dividends from the shares to buy out those heirs that he thought would die early. He continued in this business for twenty-three years before selling out. Once his wife became tied down with muscular atrophy, he decided to cease in his role as administrator and focus on her.

Keywords: Administrators; Bachelors; Belongings; Businesses; Central High School; City properties; Commissions; Estates; Farms; Muscular atrophy; Private properties; Profits; Properties; Services; Shares; Stores

Subjects: Administration of estates; Children; Columbia (Tenn.); Death; Families; Heirs; Louisville (Ky.); Remainders (Estates); Teaching; Wills; Wives

01:41:34 - Thoughts on death and the future

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Partial Transcript: Why, why, when I asked you if you would, uh, consent to spend some time with me talking about your life, why did you consider?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains that he is not concerned with how the world will be when he passes away. He emphasizes the importance of putting your full effort into the present and not worrying about past regrets or the future. Johnson isn’t worried about if others will remember him or not and simply wants to put his full effort into living while he can. He then shares his thoughts on the importance of different civilizations; even though those civilizations did not continue, parts of their culture lived on. Johnson uses baseball to illustrate his thoughts on focusing on the present. He prefers Socrates over Jesus Christ because Socrates encouraged good intentions without any sort of reward whereas Jesus used Heaven as a reward for doing good deeds.

Keywords: Afterlife; Benjamin Franklin; Churches; Consent; Cooperation; Future; Future generations; God; Historical figures; Jesus Christ; Memorials; Moral objections; Past; Posterity; Present; Reflections; Socrates; Speeches; Tombstones

Subjects: Civilization; Culture; Death; Egyptians; England; France; Future life; Future, The; Gravestones; Greece; Heaven; Hell; Immortality; Portugal; Pyramids; Religion; Rome; Soul; Spain; Teachers; Time; United States

01:57:09 - Purpose for this project

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Partial Transcript: Now Lyman, if, if this project comes together the way I think it's going to, I think it would be very significant.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson explains that his intentions for this project were not to create a memorial, but instead to pass along his knowledge so that future generations can learn from him even though he is gone. Johnson shares that he is embarrassed to share some of his thoughts because he finds them self-centered and has struggled to remain objective in sharing. He does not feel obligated to leave money for his family when he dies because he feels that his children should be able to maintain themselves.

Keywords: Complexion; Contributions; Experiences; Future generations; Gandhi; Ignorance; Jesus Christ; Memorials; Plato; Posterity; Projects; Socrates; Students; Tributes; Voltaire

Subjects: African American teachers; Autobiography; Children; Civil rights workers; Knowledge; Legacies; Remainders (Estates); Teachers; Teaching; Wills; Wisdom

02:07:16 - Balance between subjectivity and objectivity

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Partial Transcript: Now I was out at the dinner the other night--you, you know the dinner that that you, uh, you and I were out to the other night, Saturday night?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes his struggle to share his experiences and remain objective. He thinks it would be unfair to future generations for him to be too subjective or too reserved when sharing about his experiences and accomplishments. Though many have encouraged him to write an autobiography, Johnson thinks he would write too much about himself and ruin it. Hall describes their project as a new literary form: collaboration between author and subject. Johnson explains how he has seen influential people from history fade from public knowledge and believes that the same will happen to him when he dies. Hall and Johnson then discuss the impact of art and philosophy on remembering important people throughout history.

Keywords: Authors; Bias; Collaboration; Experiences; Future generations; Historical figures; Information; Memories; Pride; Public figures; Subjects; Youth

Subjects: African American leadership; Art; Autobiography; Children; Communities; Ego; History; Honesty; Knowledge; Literary form; Louisville (Ky.); Objectivity; Philosophy; Subjectivity; Teaching; Wisdom