Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, June 20, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Black Catholic community

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Partial Transcript: --is an interview, uh, eh, taken with Lyman Johnson at his home on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky on June the twentieth, 1979 between 3:30 and 5:30 in the afternoon.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson deems the assumption that there are a small number of black Catholics to be deceptive. He explains that many of the Catholics that are black in Louisville are simply spread out as a result of the migration of people out of the west end. He also mentions the fact that it is becoming more acceptable for black and white people to go to church together. Johnson explains that the black Catholic presence may not have been as large as for other denominations but it was sizable enough to have a Catholic school for blacks only. Johnson recalls times when they would beat his high school in basketball, which was a very remarkable thing for the time given the small size of the school. Johnson also points out the fact that white teachers were allowed to teach black students, but black and white students would never be allowed to be in the same classroom together. He uses an example of a child of a white teacher who wanted to go to school where their parent worked, but their parent worked at a black school and the child could not go to that school because of the "need" to keep black and white students separate.

Keywords: Acceptance; Black churches; Black community; Catholic schools; Catholicism; Catholics; Schools; Segregated schools; Segregation

Subjects: African Americans.; Education.; Religion; Schools.; Segregation.

00:04:41 - Housing inequalities / The change of the neighborhood

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Partial Transcript: Lyman you, you've lived in this house for how long?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson describes his current neighborhood in western Louisville as a "fading cultural area." He also mentions that as time has gone on, many of the people who brought this neighborhood up have died and their families have moved away. Johnson says he feels as though he has an obligation to stay in the neighborhood, as one of its more prominent figures. He mentions that moving away would give his white friends the satisfaction of knowing that he couldn't take it any longer, just like they couldn't. Johnson did not want to prove that this black neighborhood in Louisville is necessarily bad by moving out like the rest. Johnson has put so much money into the house that he says he would lose money due to the condition of the neighborhood lowering the price of the house. Johnson continues by saying there is an influx of what he called "lower class" people moving into the neighborhood. Johnson mentions the fact that the neighborhood is no longer owned by the people who live in it, meaning almost all the properties in the area are for rent. Because people in the area don't have enough money to upkeep the homes and keep the curb appeal up, many are falling into disrepair and the owners of the houses don't care enough to come fix them since they no longer live in the community themselves. Johnson remarks that renting a single house out to multiple families is what begins the downfall of the house. He mentions that people no longer feel responsible when their landlord is nowhere to be found, and neither family really owns the house. Johnson continues and says that when the tenants of a house move out, thieves come in to take the junk, to which the landlord responds by boarding up the house. Johnson does not want to give himself the credit of being a model for the community, although many of his friends say this because he is the only person who is able to upkeep his home and cares about the community. He also describes the awkward situations where his friends are hesitant to come to his house because it is in the "ghetto"; he says his friends pity him for "living in the slums." When Johnson is pitied for living in that area, he replies, "Do not pity me because I live in the slums, pity yourself because you permit a slum to be." Johnson also discusses the demographic of the community, which includes both white and black people, meaning in his eyes the issue is not only a racial one but also a economic one.

Keywords: Community; Disadvantaged; Disparities; Economic disparity; Houses; Housing; Moving; Ownership; Real-estate; Renting; Thieves

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; Economic conditions; Housing.; Inequality; Neighborhoods.; Neighbors; Real estate

00:16:26 - Racial inequalities in housing between black and white populations

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Partial Transcript: Uh, so--so you're saying that--that economic conditions, at least in part, have--have brought about a class that--the black equivalent of "poor white trash."

Segment Synopsis: Johnson makes a point that even if a poor black man goes out into the world well-prepared and does what he needs to and becomes successful, that even at the end of the day he is still disadvantaged to a white man from the exact same economic background because he can't change the fact he is black. Johnson recalls a trip he took with two other distinguished black men where somewhere on the side of the road they saw people that he would classify as lower class white people. Johnson recalls how he expressed feelings of pity for those people, and his two friends scoffed at the comment, replying they couldn't care less about them. Johnson said not caring about them is exactly how everyone feels about them. Rich white people don't care about them, and neither do any black people, making them live a "miserable existence."

Keywords: Economic disparities; Inequality; Opportunity; Pity; Poor; Rich; Shame; Unequal

Subjects: African American neighborhoods; Classism.; Economic conditions; Housing.; Inequality; Neighborhoods.; Neighbors; Poor.; Racism.; Real estate; Shame.

00:23:40 - History of race and poverty in America

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Partial Transcript: See, I'm getting--I'm trying to get you to say that you have some "poor black trash" just like there're "poor white trash," even though, uh--I mean, that's a sociological term and I guess--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson discusses his views on the history of race and class in America. He says that the number of poor white people living in the South can be attributed to when people first began to settle and develop the land in America. Johnson explains that some people were better off from the very beginning because they were able to secure better land, forcing some people into the foothills. Johnson attributes the physical appearance of poor white people to their nutrition while they were in the womb and very young children. He explains that they were less nourished than slaves in many cases, and says they are probably still some of the most undernourished people today. Johnson explains that nutrition makes or breaks children's lives; if they are well-fed in the womb and also while they are young, they just do better in all aspects of life. Johnson says it is unfair to children who go through this, because they are immediately labeled in negative ways and will probably never lose those labels.

Keywords: Ancestry; Black people; Economic disparity; Poor people; Racial inequalities; Settlement; Slavery; Socioeconomic determinants of health; Wealth; White people

Subjects: Classism.; Economic conditions; Economics.; Inequality; Racism.; Social status.

00:31:19 - Johnson's friends and race relations

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I want to ask you some rather quick que--I hope quick questions--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson has always had friends, friends that are black, and also friends that are white. He says that his white friends often got themselves into trouble when they tried to outdo him in the civil rights movement. Johnson says that he always tells his white friends that because they are white, they don't need to be fighting so hard, harder than blacks, for a movement that doesn't represent them. Although it is noble to fight for civil rights, Johnson says this is something that negatively affected his liberal white friends' careers. Johnson recalls that they would be punished for fighting for civil rights because their white colleagues and bosses would see that as disgraceful. Johnson mentions he was a part of the Civil Liberties Union in the area, and at one point was the secretary of the organization. The Civil Liberties Union was not only for protecting the civil liberties of blacks, but also women and other underrepresented populations, even the KKK and Nazis. Johnson also lists more white friends, this time mentioning the Bradens. The Bradens were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and became notorious for how supportive they were for equal rights. Johnson says they did this because of their Christian values and the desire to do the right thing, but it cost them their families and careers in some aspects.

Keywords: Allies; Anne Braden; Carl Braden; Civil rights; Civil rights movement; Liberal; Liberal white people; Political beliefs; Politics; White people

Subjects: African Americans--Civil rights; Civil rights demonstrations; Civil rights movement.; Civil rights movements--United States; Civil rights.; Classism.; Protest movements.; Racism.; Segregation; United States--Race relations.

00:41:11 - Nightlife in 1940s west Louisville / Civil rights issues

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Partial Transcript: Well, uh, let--let me ask you, uh, just quickly, you mentioned, uh, bringing a little bit of Harlem to Sixth and Walnut.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls the heavy presence of liquor and bars in the nightlife scene. He remarks that there are very few instances where people would use drugs, but very heavy use of alcohol would occur. Johnson says the deeper you would go into these clubs the "worse" the activity would be. Most of the time the entertainment would be a single person playing an instrument such as a piano or banjo. Johnson says sometimes more people would bring instruments or sing at the clubs. Johnson recalls that he and his wife were not keen on the party and clubbing scene, but they would occasionally go to show that they are like everyone else; they don't think too highly of themselves, and they can have fun with everyone. Johnson also mentions widespread gambling that took place in the back of the clubs. He says this is really how a club made money, and even if the stakes were low, you could gamble with the club, but the club would still make a profit. Johnson is also quick to point out that the police were paid off by the clubs in order for the gambling to occur. Johnson returns to talking about white friends he has, and how they impacted civil rights, he says however that these friends didn't go "too far." Johnson recalls these friends took a more religious approach to the civil rights movement and simply acted as Jesus would have.

Keywords: Bribes; Civil rights movement; Clubs; Community; Dancing; Entertainment; Gambling; Instruments; Liberal; Liberalism; Nightlife; Parties; Police; Police brutality; Politics; Religion; Sex work; Singing

Subjects: Clubs.; Gambling.; Nightlife.; Party; Police brutality.

01:05:42 - Johnson's black friends, network, and colleagues

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Partial Transcript: Uh, who were some of your close black friends?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson begins to list off several of his friends, and also lists their occupations. Many of these friends are reputable doctors and figures in the educational system, as well as lawyers, other officials, and well-educated people. Johnson recalls when his friends became burned out with the civil rights movement, many giving up totally because they were convinced the world was never going to be reformed.

Keywords: Attorneys; Civil rights; Colleagues; Community building; Dentists; Doctors; Education system; Friends; Lawyers; Network; Networking; Ophthalmologists; Peace; Support; Teachers; Unions

Subjects: African American leadership; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Social life and customs.; African Americans--Societies, etc.; Civil rights; Civil rights demonstrations; Civil rights movements--United States; Education; Friends; Life; Network

01:13:17 - Johnson's health throughout his life

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Partial Transcript: Uh, have you ever had any serious illnesses?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says he had not experienced any serious illness until the age of 69, after the onset of his arthritis. He recalls that he was working outside one day and it was excruciating for him to move or do anything. He later was seen by a doctor and was diagnosed with appendicitis. He was treated by a black doctor, and recovered quickly. Johnson continues to feel the pain of arthritis and says it has gotten worse over the course of the past five years. Johnson says that, overall, he is happy with what he has experienced, and is happy with his health. He says if nothing has really happened to him until arthritis at the age of 69, he has no reason to complain. Johnson remarks that he can be happy because he knows there are less lucky people who are "cut short" by a condition in their 20s and 30s.

Keywords: Aging; Appendicitis; Arthritis; Disease; Joint pain; Sickness; Surgery; Trouble

Subjects: African Americans--Health and hygiene.; Aging.; Arthritis.; Pain; Quality of life.; Surgery.

01:18:37 - Johnson describes himself / Navy service--Part I

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Partial Transcript: Lyman, if I were to ask you to describe yourself--(laughter)--how would you do it?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says he has trouble describing himself. He says he has many different personalities, which he uses in different situations, but he says when he thinks about it he doesn't know who he really is. Physically, Johnson says he has always been skinny and underweight. Johnson recalls his time in the navy, and how he desperately tried to gain weight. Johnson served at the end of World War II. Johnson says his other faculties are still good as well, he still has good hearing and good eyesight, and he says during his time working in education, he never needed to take a single sick day in 40 years.

Keywords: Eyesight; Health; Hearing; Lanky; Military; Navy; Scrawny; Senses; Service; Underweight; WW2; WWII; Well-being; World War 2; World War II; World War Two

Subjects: African American veterans.; African American.; Military officer.; Navy officer; Nutrition.; Personality.; Sailor

01:24:27 - Black identity

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Partial Transcript: We, we Negroes--(long pause)--get lost in trying to describe who we are when--and I make a big--I make a big, uh, joke, uh, out of any--any of us who tries to say we are what we are because of somebody in our heritage.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson begins this statement by addressing the fact that many black people and other people of color are not just purely black, or purely anything, and they do not have only African, or Native American, ancestry in their DNA. This is very controversial for the time because your physical characteristics determined your race. If you looked a certain way you would be labelled as such. Johnson says that ever since the beginning of slavery people have been mixing the races, first the slave owners with their slaves and then their children and the cycle continued. Johnson remarks that at a certain point it doesn't matter if you feel one way and look the other, however people see you is what you are in their eyes. He says that people oftentimes feel like they are something, but the people you know you are related to don't see you that way because you don't look like them. Johnson uses himself as an example, stating that because he is mixed race, he knows there are people that he knows he is related to that will not accept him because he is black and they aren't. Johnson says it doesn't matter if people don't want to accept the fact that there has been mixing between the races, because he is clear evidence of that.

Keywords: Ancestors; Ancestry; Background; Bi-racial; Color; Enslaved; Enslavement; Enslavers; Ethnicity; Family; Family backgrounds; Multiracial; People of color (POC); Race; Racially ambiguous; Roots; Skin color; Slave masters; Slave owners

Subjects: African American families; African American.; African Americans--Genealogy.; African Americans--Race identity.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Ethnicity.; Family histories.; Family history.; Genealogy; Race.; Racially mixed children.; Slavery--United States.; Slaves--Abuse of; Slaves--Social conditions.; Slaves--United States.; United States--Race relations.

01:28:23 - Johnson's wife and their relationship / Working in education

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Partial Transcript: Uh, how--what kind of personality did your wife have?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls memories of his wife, who before the time of the interviews had passed away. He recalls their relationship as interesting, and describes her outlook towards him as very uncaring. Johnson says they were not the ideal couple, and because they were so opposite of one another they often didn't see eye to eye. Johnson remarks that his wife thought he was so sincere that he couldn't be real, in that he was always doing the right thing or always so nice she was always suspicious to his motives. Johnson also describes his wife as often dissatisfied with the way he tried to please her. He recalls her always wanting to go to more operas or other artistic forms of entertainment. Johnson begins to recall how he and his wife met, and describes her as very eager to start a relationship in the beginning. The first time they spent time together Johnson remembers spending the whole day with her, which was not his original plan, but he was very content with. Johnson remembers things moved fast between them and they were married within a few months after they began dating. He also remembers telling her that he would try to get a job in Tennessee so he could be in the same city as her, but he ended up keeping his job in Louisville, forcing her to leave her job. After this, Johnson continued working in the city of Louisville's school district, working at Central High School.

Keywords: Courting; Dating; Engagement; Honesty; Husbands; Loyalty; Marriage; Spouses; Union; Widowers; Wife; Wives

Subjects: African American families; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Marriage.; Honesty.; Marriage.; Relationships.; Widowers.

01:40:58 - Navy service--Part II

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Partial Transcript: Um, have you ever been abroad?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls his time in the navy, saying he was not actually deployed in the navy, but instead spent most of his time at the training bases. Johnson remarks that when he arrived in the navy, he and just under 50 other educated African Americans were told that they would not be promoted to officer, or be ranked up in any way, instead they would be given free reign, just try to do something useful. He recalls being told that officers there did not want to tell them they needed to do something because they were more educated than almost all of the officers. Johnson chose, along with about 20 other members of this group, to begin a literacy school at the training facility. The purpose of the school would be to teach the black soldiers coming from Mississippi, Alabama, and other Southern states how to read and know enough so they could go to war and be efficient. Johnson remembers at first black men were not accepted into the navy because they could not pass the test for the draft. He said they were too "dumb", so the military knew it needed a way to send more black soldiers to even out the amount of white soldiers that had died. Johnson knew this was because people in the South started to get angry that their white sons were dying while the "useless" black men picking cotton in the fields were doing nothing of substance. The government knew it needed a way to win the war, but also lose as little "valuable" (white) lives as possible; black soldiers were seen as disposable. Johnson recalls that thousands of illiterate black soldiers would arrive to the bases at a time, unable to read their own names.

Keywords: Classism; Ethnicity; Illiteracy; Military; Navy; Patriotism; Race; Racism; Segregation; Service; Skin color; South Sea; Unequal; Unfair

Subjects: African American veterans.; African Americans--Education.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Civil rights.; Classism; Military; Military officer.; Navy officer; Race discrimination.; Racism; Racism.; Sailor; Segregation; Teaching; United States--Race relations.

01:50:17 - White man's burden / The black experience

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Partial Transcript: I have one last question but I need to--[Pause in recording.]

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says it is possible to answer the question, "Is being black a burden?" He describes it as almost a nightmare, where so many doors are completely closed off to black people because of the color of their skin. Johnson gives an example of an everyday occurrence, such as just eating lunch, to be very difficult because he is black. He remarks that his white friends never really see the troubles people like him face because they are very blind to it. He recalls a day at work where his colleagues went to have lunch, and they didn't think twice about the fact that the establishment was whites only. He said it didn't even occur to his white friends that he couldn't eat anywhere in that area of town because all the restaurants were whites only. Johnson recalls receiving special treatment and over-exaggerated equal treatment on a college tour because he was black, and other people wanted him to know that he was "welcome" although he knew just very recently prior to this tour he would not have been allowed to go to school with white people, eat lunch with white people, etc. Johnson acknowledges the fact that he is not free, and neither are other black citizens in America.

Keywords: Black; Black experience; Burdens; Caucasian; Color; Education; Human experience; Inequality; Race; White

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