Johnetta Haley made her mark as an arts educator and social activist in St. Louis and the metro-east, but she didn’t know much about her own family tree until her father died in 1967.
That’s when she learned that John Randolph was the son of a black mother who worked on a Louisiana plantation and a white father who owned it.
“He was illegitimate, of course, although I don’t like to use that word,” said Haley, 94. “But he got to go to school. The other kids on the plantation, who weren’t the sons of the plantation owner, they had to work in the fields. But he never talked about it. He never told us anything.”
Today, Haley still is sketchy on details of her father’s past, but she knows his emphasis on education, culture and community service helped shape her life.
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She graduated from a black college, worked as a music teacher and helped integrate schools in Kirkwood, Missouri, in the 1950s. She became a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor and administrator who ran its East St. Louis Center, founded its Head Start program and exposed thousands of children to music, dance and art.
Haley has received many accolades, including last year’s SIUE Distinguished Service Award. Next month, she’ll be honored for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts by the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.
“She’s a legend,” said SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga.
The council also is giving its Arts Collaboration Award to Art on the Square in Belleville and the Educator of the Year Award to Keith Tyrone Williams, an East St. Louis native who trained with choreographer and dancer Katherine Dunham and now is chair of musical theater at Grand Center Arts Academy.
Haley recently sat down for an interview at her apartment in Ladue, Missouri. She easily recalled names, dates, projects and experiences from the past nine decades.
“My mother was very invested in her career, which was educating children,” said her daughter, Karen Douglas, 69, of Olivette, Missouri. “She was a very caring teacher, and she was very focused on community service. She wanted to improve educational outcomes for black children.
“She cared for all children, but she was very aware of societal barriers encountered by black children.”
Overcoming racial challenges
The former Johnetta Randolph was born at home in Alton in 1923. Both her parents were college graduates at a time when most African-Americans didn’t even have high-school diplomas.
Her mother, Willye, worked as a teacher before she got married and reared four children. John Randolph was a minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The family moved all over Illinois to serve black congregations, and their home doubled as lodging for black travelers who weren’t allowed to stay at local hotels. The Randolphs got along with their white neighbors but lived with different rules.
“All of the ministers and their families got free passes to the movies, but we had to sit up in the balcony,” Haley recalls. “We couldn’t sit on the first floor.”
Haley started playing piano at age 5. She graduated from East St. Louis Lincoln High School in 1941 before studying music education at Lincoln University of Missouri in Jefferson City. She taught three years in East St. Louis, married real-estate broker David Haley, moved to St. Louis and began substitute-teaching at a black school in the Kirkwood district.
Then came Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to school desegregation. Johnetta Haley was one of four black teachers hired at Nipher Junior High in Kirkwood.
“The principal told us that 1,500 parents had signed a petition,” she said. “They did not want us there. They didn’t feel it was necessary, no matter what the court ruled. He said, ‘Miss Haley, if you have any problems, let me know.’”
Haley spent more than 20 years in the district, developing a reputation as a talented music teacher and popular choir director. She reared two of her own children, Karen Douglas and the late Michael Haley, who was murdered at age 33 while being robbed after a family reunion in Miami, Florida.
Johnetta Haley made sure the kids took piano lessons and otherwise experienced the arts. She also taught them black history, emphasizing African-American achievements and encouraging pride.
The principal told us that 1,500 parents had signed a petition. They did not want us there. They didn’t feel it was necessary, no matter what the court ruled.
Johnetta Haley on being hired to help integrate a school
Douglas remembers her parents’ reaction when asked why the family didn’t go to a St. Louis amusement park or other whites-only places.
“They never said blacks couldn’t go there,” said Douglas, a psychologist. “They just didn’t answer me. So I never grew up with any sense of inferiority.
“Expectations were very high for my brother and I. (Mom) was very strict and very protective. She was protective of our racial and cultural identity.”
Lifting up the community
Haley left Kirkwood after enrolling in an SIUE master’s program at age 49 and getting a chance to teach at the college level in the 1970s.
Former students include current Chancellor Randy Pembrook, 62, who studied music education and student-taught at Edwardsville High School under her supervision. He remembers her being “businesslike” when observing him in the classroom and scribbling detailed notes on his performance.
Pembrook took the SIUE helm last year and learned that Haley had not only made an indelible mark on him, but on the institution. The university’s minority scholarship program is named after her.
“Our Head Start program (in East St. Louis) is one of the largest Head Start programs in the country,” Pembrook said. “And she gets a lot of credit for that.”
Haley served as director of SIUE’s East St. Louis Center for 10 years, beginning in 1982.
Backed by former SIUE President Earl Lazerson, she worked to make it more professional, prohibiting hats and saggy pants and raising housekeeping standards to the point that employees joked about her “white-glove test.”
“At first, we didn’t like her,” said George Mitchom, 82, of Belleville, former assistant director for community service programs. “She was too prissy. She put a lot of emphasis on speaking correctly and walking correctly, keeping things in order and making your meetings on time.
“But it turned out, I liked her better than anyone I ever worked for. She was open to new ideas. She was interested in helping kids and helping people.”
Haley firmly believed that a university was responsible for lifting up the surrounding community.
One of her boldest moves was traveling to Washington, D.C., to ask the U.S. Department of Education to take the unusual step of allowing a university to operate a Head Start program. She also provided space for local musicians and dancers to practice and perform.
Haley supported programs for poor children, abuse victims, older residents who wanted to take classes and high-school graduates considering college.
“We would take 200 to 300 kids in the summer and introduce them to campus through work,” Mitchom said. “They worked at the library, in food services and in various offices in Edwardsville. And when they got done with work, they agreed to take classes to prepare themselves for college.”
Going strong after retirement
Haley retired in 1992 but stayed involved in community service organizations. She’s a charter member of the Delta Delta Omega East St. Louis chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and a member of the Gateway Chapter of The Links, Inc.
After getting divorced, she had a 23-year relationship with Phillip Hampton, a painter and SIUE art professor who died last year. They led an active social life.
“My mother has always been a dresser,” Douglas said. “She always looks classy.”
Haley used to have dresses and suits custom-made by a tailor. She later developed a love of “bling,” including big beaded necklaces and glittery nail polish.
Haley still drives her sporty Ford Fusion and keeps up with political news on MSNBC, but she has slowed down since suffering a heart attack and getting stints two years ago. She sold her villa and moved into a high-rise retirement complex, where a walker helps her get around.
“I played (piano) for church every Sunday until I moved,” she said.
Haley had attended St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Now she stays home and watches the Rev. Joel Osteen on TV. She’s also a big “60 Minutes” fan and is reading correspondent Leslie Stahl’s book on being a grandmother.
Haley has one grandson and one great-grandson. Her apartment is filled with family photos, live plants and African artifacts. She loves to shop, play cards with her Hollywood Poker Club, attend meetings of her Moneybees investment group and occasionally visit a casino with her daughter.
“She has always eaten well and taken vitamins,” Douglas said, noting she swears by vitamin C and herbal rose hips. “She’s always stayed informed about current events. In other words, her mind is not resting.”
Looking back, Haley is most proud of becoming the first female board member for Lincoln University, her mother’s alma mater, in 1977 and serving for 10 years; and of her daughter’s decision to follow in her footsteps as a social activist.
Many former students keep in touch, particularly East St. Louisans who may not have received much exposure to the arts without Haley’s efforts.
“My white children love me, too,” she said. “I didn’t treat them any different just because they were white. I loved them, just like the black children.”
27th annual St. Louis Arts Awards honorees
- Johnetta Haley, retired music educator, Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
- Dennis M. Reagan, The Muny president and CEO, Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
- Gene Dobbs Bradford, Jazz St. Louis executive director, Excellence in the Arts
- Keith Tyrone Williams, Grand Center Arts Academy musical theater director, Art Educator of the Year
- St. Louis Fashion Fund, Arts Startup of the Year
- Art on the Square in Belleville, Arts Collaboration
- World Wide Technology in St. Louis, Corporate Support of the Arts