WHEN I HAD ACCEPTED THE POSITION and agreed to a three-year appointment, my initial goal was to see if I would be able to infuse diversity into the normal routines and functions of the operations and systems of this 141-year-old institution rather than simply introducing diversity into certain departments and activities. I knew it would be a difficult task, but I hoped that the changes I made as an associate vice president whose mission was diversity would continue to be implemented and the next administrator would have an environment in which to continue the diversity work. At the end of that three-year commitment, I was convinced that the recommendations I submitted to the president and the regents to meet that objective could be accomplished, but there would need to be an ongoing effort. With the help of my staff and the community, we had created a deeper awareness of the need for system-wide diversity. I felt I had successfully met my objective and that I had honored the purpose of the creation of the Office of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Provost with Special Responsibility for Minority Affairs.
I thought I might take a brief period of rest and relaxation after retirement, but looking back I truly do not remember stopping my instinctive behavior—justice and equality were still critical issues in our society. New things were developing in some of the organizations where I was serving as a board member when I retired. One board I continued to serve on was for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). I had first become interested in the art museum shortly after Chuck and I moved to Minneapolis, and we took the girls there regularly. Back then the museum had a lending program where patrons could borrow artwork. We utilized the program one or two times, bringing art home to enjoy for the allotted time. I joined their board of trustees the year Patrice died, on the recommendation of my good friend Marvin Borman.
I believe I made a significant contribution to the organization’s outreach efforts during my fifteen-year tenure as a trustee. I knew MIA was a place that Black people interested in the arts would want to visit and would also want to volunteer if opportunities were made available to them. I very much enjoyed working with Evan Maurer, who was the institute’s director at the time. He was such a forward-thinking, civic-minded man, and he didn’t doubt for a second that what I believed was true. He and our board fully supported my effort to develop a program that would support Black citizens who didn’t have degrees in art history or the financial resources to become docents or active members of the institution. Evan was able to see that there are people in our community without those qualifications but with a deep love of art, who would very much enjoy serving as tour guides in the galleries. We created a program that provided twelve weeks of training, which included information about the organization, some of its holdings, specifically African and African American art, and art history. We launched the program in 1998 and called it Culture in Focus Tours.
The first exciting demonstration of our new tour guide opportunity was an exhibition of the work of Jacob Lawrence and his wife, Gwendolyn Knight—the first time the works of these outstanding artists were exhibited together. Evan and I were thrilled to see a much larger viewing audience from the minority community, and I remember the pride I felt when we brought the couple in for an artists’ talk. The auditorium was packed, and the audience included a large number of Black people. It was also during my tenure that the museum canceled admission fees, making the museum accessible to all income levels. The Minneapolis Institute of Art remains accessible to people of color, and the free membership and admission policy is still in place.
My relationship to the university stayed strong as well. The year after I retired, the university established the Josie R. Johnson Award in recognition of my lifelong contributions to human rights and social justice, which guided my work with the civil rights movement, years of community service, and tenure at the University of Minnesota. The award honors University of Minnesota faculty, staff, and students who model the issues of human rights and social justice.
Several years later, the African American Leadership Forum established the Dr. Josie R. Johnson Leadership Academy, a yearlong leadership training program for young professionals and emerging leaders working for civil rights and social justice. Participants go on to work in business and philanthropy, government and politics, faith and religion, and community action.
For a time after retirement I remained on the board of the University of Minnesota Foundation, the organization that raises and manages funds for the university. Initially, I felt very free to share my thoughts about how the money could be used. But after a while I became concerned. In my associate vice president position, my staff and I brought Black students together at the beginning of every year and encouraged them to get involved in every aspect of university life—in the band, cheerleading, theater. I wanted them to know that the University of Minnesota was their university and that they should explore all that it had to offer. But I didn’t see any images of Black students on the brochures and other publicity materials the foundation was using to recruit students. I brought up my concern at a board meeting, saying that Black prospective students needed to see themselves represented in materials we were using for recruitment efforts. I was disappointed when, during the conversation, I discovered that my concerns were not as uniformly understood as I thought. I was surprised that that observation had not been made by other members of the board and staff, and that the urgency for correcting the oversight did not seem to have exigency. The year after I resigned, I saw more inclusive images in the brochures.
Meanwhile, I joined the Women’s Health Fund and served as president in 1999. Dr. June Lavalleur, a well-known obstetrician-gynecologist and researcher at University Hospital who had gone to medical school as a more mature student, was extremely engaged in getting the university to become more concerned about women’s health issues. June was my doctor, and she and I always laugh when we talk about how she convinced me to join. I was in her office having my annual physical exam, and we were discussing the results of the examination when she asked me to join the board. Of course, I agreed. I was committed to bringing African American women on that board to help create a strong understanding of Black women’s health issues. Bernadette Anderson, who was president of the Urban League Guild, accepted my invitation to join the Women’s Health Fund board.
An exciting opportunity was presented to me during my first year of retirement: Reverend Alfred Babington-Johnson, president of the Stair Step Foundation, and his assistant, Menia Buckner, invited me and six other Black women to become members of a project sponsored by the reverend to travel to Ghana, in West Africa. Seven adult women would mentor seven high school girls on the trip, guiding them in life lessons as they all learned more about African culture and traditions. It was my first trip to Africa and it gave me many lasting memories. My dearest friend Katie McWatt was also one of the mentors. I laugh when I remember how difficult it was to encourage her to accept the invitation, as Katie was deathly afraid of flying. I was able to convince her that we would be safe, but what finally made her decision was our objective: she decided that serving our young girls was worth the trip.
It truly was a wonderful and educational experience. Menia was an excellent planner and organizer. She selected the hotel and the restaurants, as well the places we would visit, and she made sure that we had ample time together for meaningful discussions. Each mentor shared a hotel room with her mentee, and as a group we went on tours together during the day and met together in the evening to talk about what we had seen. We saw our people working together to clear roads and build homes in their communities. We visited markets and purchased things to bring home to our families.
We also visited what are known as the slave “castles.” I do not understand why they are called castles, as they are really dungeons. I was shocked that you can still smell the stench of the suffering of our ancestors when we saw the small, small rooms they were forced to stay in, huddled together like they were in a can of sardines, exactly like pictures we have all seen. We couldn’t hold back the tears when we saw the Door of No Return, through which they were led from those horrible dungeons to the slave ships.
A special opportunity for Katie and me was a visit to the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Center in Accra. As we entered and saw his desk and the materials he was working on at his desk, I imagined having a conversation with him. We appreciated the opportunity to see his work in his Ghana center. We took pictures and understood more clearly what he was doing in Ghana and why he had moved there.
Also, having read about the spiritual life of our ancestors, we were thrilled to visit a very mixed spiritual Sunday church service that was unlike any I had ever seen. Held in a large church that reminded me of a coliseum, it was a remarkable gathering of people who practiced all kinds of spiritual expressions. A minister spoke and a choir sang, and then the congregants gathered into their own spiritual, tribal, and cultural groups. Many small groups were speaking their own languages and expressing their own spiritual rituals in the same space. I was very moved to see the African cultural traditions still alive and well. The night before we left Accra, a tribal chief dressed in his traditional garments visited the home of our host. He extended a traditional blessing, shared the history of our Ghanaian ancestors, and then invited us back “home.”
Getting to know the young lady who was my mentee and developing a personal and spiritual relationship have kept us in touch. She went to college in Texas, then took a job and moved to Texas. I remain in touch with her Minneapolis family, her Texas baby boy, and her work history, and I see her when she comes home to Minneapolis.
In 1995, a new state-of-the-art Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter facility had opened in Minneapolis with a public address. Going public was new for women’s shelters at that time because of very serious safety concerns—but the Tubman staff and board wanted to make the reality of violence against women very visible, widely understood, and well addressed by the whole community. The shelter was able to do so because of extensive design and security measures that made the new building completely secure. And three years later a police precinct station opened across the street.
The new Harriet Tubman was very beautiful and very large with an iron structure in the front created by local Black artist Seitu Jones, which represented Harriet Tubman and the struggle for freedom. In the new building we would be able to provide support and services ranging from immediate safety for women and children to long-term residencies. The facility made it possible to prepare women for lives without further abuse by offering human services, educational opportunities, and job training for gainful employment.
I was honored to be asked to play a major role in making the dreams for such an outstanding new facility a reality. It began in 1991, when I was invited to lunch by a good friend without any stated reason. I thought the invitation was nice but a little unusual: my friend Arthur T. Himmelman and I did not go out to lunch very often. We were enjoying our lunch and sharing our perspectives on many community issues as we usually did, but Arthur seemed to have something else on his mind. He told me later that he was as nervous as being in high school and asking a special girl to the prom.
I learned Arthur was nervous because, as he put it, he was on an incredibly important mission as the vice president of the Harriet Tubman board of directors and chair of its development committee. Arthur asked me to lunch to see if I would become the chair of the Harriet Tubman Campaign Committee to raise $6 million to design and construct its new facility. Arthur said he knew I was the best possible person to be campaign chair because I brought unquestioned integrity and credibility, long-term commitments to equity and justice, a lifetime of outstanding professional accomplishments, and a record of extraordinary service to those suffering from hardships in their lives. I was flattered to hear him tell me this and was interested in the idea of a new Tubman facility, but I could only respond by saying I would consider it over the next few days. Arthur was relieved I had not declined and waited, with some anxiety, until I contacted him with my answer. A conversation with Sharon Sayles Belton, who would later become the first woman and the first Black mayor of Minneapolis, convinced me. She took me to the shelter on Oakland Avenue near Lake Street and told me it was established in 1976 as the third battered women’s shelter in the country.
I agreed to chair the committee. However, I didn’t wish to play this role without someone else I knew who could bring contacts, networks, and access to financial resources beyond my own, so I invited my friend Marvin Borman to co-chair with me and he graciously agreed. Marvin was highly respected as a brilliant lawyer, but even more so for the countless ways he worked tirelessly on behalf of people and communities in need. I knew then I could call Arthur and tell him Marvin and I would co-chair the committee.
The campaign for Tubman met its fund-raising goal and even exceeded it. While Marvin and I played important roles in making this possible, we also were members of a large team, which included other committee members, Tubman’s board of directors, community members, and, most important, completely supported by Tubman’s extremely capable executive director, Beverly Dusso, and her outstanding staff, which included Junauld Braddock-Presley who still serves as director of residential services.
Arthur told me about a moment prior to my involvement when Tubman board members were concerned about the difficulties in raising what was an unprecedented amount of money for a women’s shelter at that time. As chair of the development committee, Arthur was asked about having a feasibility study done to see if the campaign goal was “realistic.” Arthur told me he thought about the shelter choosing to call itself the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, thereby carrying forward her legacy of extraordinarily courageous and righteous actions to free men, women, and children from slavery at enormous personal risk to herself. Arthur then told the board members they did not need a feasibility study because they had chosen to name their services and support for women suffering from abuse in honor of Harriet Tubman. He believed they would succeed in the campaign because it was the right cause and was long overdue for more financial resources; because they were doing it in honor of one of the greatest heroic figures in American history; and because they greatly admired and deeply respect Harriet Tubman. Finally, they would succeed because they must do what she would do if she were living among us. And indeed we did succeed. The new facility was renamed the Harriet Tubman Center: the concept was that this center would follow the tradition of Harriet Tubman—in protecting mothers, children, and families, as the strong representative of this support of families.
One of the community members who served on our Tubman committee was a man named Clifton Johns, who was a member of the church located behind the Tubman, Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church. Cliff had become very concerned about the deterioration of the church building due to many years of poor maintenance and extreme moisture, which caused a leaking roof, mold, and other problems that he felt were a danger to the health of the church members. He wanted to restore the building to its original state. The restoration would be costly, so he asked me to join him in the effort. This was not an unusual request to me, as I knew Cliff from other community endeavors in addition to our work with the Tubman committee. Also, Tubman and Redeemer shared a parking lot. I felt that the Tubman Center and Redeemer Church had a very close relationship, and I was happy to work with him.
We were able to recruit a very enthusiastic group of people for our restoration committee, all of whom were also involved in the community. The committee met at Tubman and consisted of civil rights activists and people I knew from the community: Ford Bell of the James Ford Bell Foundation; Governor Mark Dayton’s niece Megan Dayton; Kathleen Fluegel and others whom I knew from the MIA board; Diane Neiman, who was the executive director of the Family Philanthropic Foundation; Penny and Mike Winton, other friends from the MIA; Clifton Johns; and the minister of the church, Reverend Alfred L. Harris.
They raised money, speaking on the church’s behalf identifying its historical relationship to our city. The architecture firm we employed, MacDonald & Mack Architects, specializes in historic preservation and stewardship of existing structures of all ages, from prairie homesteads to streamlined modern landmarks. They saw great value in restoring the church and were able to locate historic documents and the church’s history. We learned that it was built in 1910 as a Presbyterian church and was designed in the Prairie School style of architecture.
The restoration was completed in 2000 and became a very successful and important demonstration of historic preservation in the heart of the city; the project won the National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award. Part of the new design that I remember and that made the congregation happy was that the baptismal pool, which had always been in the lower level of the church, was redesigned so that it was brought up to the first floor, near where the minister spoke, giving it a broader viewing by the congregation during holy baptismal periods.
We had a wonderful, well-attended dedication. The community was invited and the congregation prepared refreshments. There were speakers who represented the work done on that beautiful structure, including the lovely, original wood and the opening of a huge set of folding doors that were more than fifteen feet high, which separated the sanctuary from the instructional part of the building where Bible studies and Sunday School were held. The newly restored building received great acclaim from all the people who had been a part of the project. The congregants who served on the committee were so proud—especially Cliff Johns, who had worked so hard on the project.
Another board that had a mission to reach out and serve the community was the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota. It is a branch of a worldwide philanthropic organization whose mission, in its own words, is “to provide funding for children’s homes, hospitals, schools, universities, and social agencies throughout the world in direct response to Christ’s teachings.” Here in Minnesota, Catholic donors build on that sacred tradition. I served on the board for ten years, from 2001–2011, during the time that Archbishop Harry Joseph Flynn was chair and my own priest, Father Kevin McDonough, was also on the board. It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know Catholic individuals and to be of service to the communities of the Minneapolis–St. Paul archdiocese.
I served on the board in several capacities. I was on the executive committee, and I chaired the strategic planning committee and the grants committee, which received applications from groups that were requesting financial support from the foundation. While on that committee, I had a chance to visit various requesting groups and learned a lot about them. I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the directors of those programs and the children who would benefit from the applied funds. One of the groups was our own WE WIN Institute, founded by Titilayo Bediako, the daughter of my dear friend Matthew Little. I derived a great sense of satisfaction knowing that we were actually able to fund one of the educational efforts in our city that addressed the needs of African American children.
In 1981, St. Peter Claver’s school building had reopened and the church became rededicated to the mission of educating the children in the Rondo neighborhood. One day years later, in 2008, when I was seventy-eight, Father Kevin and I were having lunch, enjoying our usual conversations. The topic turned to the school, St. Peter Claver. Our principal, Teresa Mardenborough, was retiring. The most likely candidate to replace her was a teacher/coach already working in the school, but he needed time to complete his principal certification courses first and was scheduled to finish within a year. Father Kevin wanted to know if I would take the assignment for that year. I was willing to accept the terms—little compensation, twelve-hour days, seven days a week—starting immediately. I felt confident in my academic training, knowledge, years of experience in education, and faith in African American culture to do my job as principal.
I was blessed to be of service. I retired from that assignment in 2010. The school continues to model discipline, order, and academic excellence. I was able to engage the parents at a level that worked for them and our teachers. We encouraged civility among our students and support for all volunteers and after-school projects. Art, theater, geography, and politics at the appropriate grade level added to the knowledge of the upper grade students. There appeared to be satisfaction and success during that period. My service and experience at St. Peter Claver School was one of the most rewarding periods in my retiring years.
When Sharon Sayles Belton was first elected in 1994 as Minneapolis’s first female and first Black mayor—in fact, the first Black mayor of any major city—Phyllis Goff organized a committee to sponsor a bust created in honor of her accomplishments. We worked for about a year but lost energy when it didn’t appear that we would be successful. But Phyllis never lost interest. She reactivated the campaign in 2016 and brought together a diverse group of community people to serve as the Sharon Sayles Belton Bust Committee. She invited Reatha Clark King and me to co-chair the committee. We worked on the project for about a year and a half, and with the $100,000 we raised, we were able to contract Ed Dwight to create the bronze bust.
I knew Ed from Colorado when I contracted him to sculpt a bust of Lieutenant Governor George Brown, whom I had served as chief of staff. In his earlier career, Ed was an Air Force test pilot and was the first African American to be trained as an astronaut. Later, he studied art and became a sculptor, creating some thirty-five great works of celebratory African American art. His sculptures include international monuments to the Underground Railroad in Detroit and Canada; a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Denver’s City Park; a bust of George Washington Williams in the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus; the Black Patriots Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C.; the South Carolina Black History Memorial in Columbia; the Alex Haley–Kunta Kinte Memorial in Annapolis, Maryland; and the Quincy Jones Sculpture Park in Chicago. Some of his works are on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute.
Ed created a beautiful bronze bust of Mayor Sayles Belton, unveiled at Minneapolis City Hall on May 16, 2017, to a crowd of three hundred people. It is one of only three busts that are displayed on the third floor of City Hall outside the offices of the Minneapolis City Council.