Two World Wars. Prohibition. Brown v. Board of Education. The end of segregation.
To elementary students as young as those at Champaign’s Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, those events are about as tangible as the pages of history books they’ll read. But when Teretha Johnson visits the school’s students today, they’ll get a different perspective — from the going-on-104-year-old educator who lived through all of it.
While Johnson could tell stories about “those days” for hours, she didn’t just live history. She made it, becoming the Champaign school district’s first African-American educator to teach in a predominantly white school.
Not that she set out to personally break that barrier — or even become a teacher.
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“The only thing I ever wanted to do was be a mother,” she said.
Johnson was born in 1914 in Georgia, where racial lines were drawn and divided statewide. It would be nearly six years before women could legally vote — and longer before black Americans were truly afforded that right.
She remembers family members leaving the South in pursuit of better lives.
“My uncle in Cincinnati had a job, and they all thought he was white,” she said.
He was one of a few family members who chose to sever family ties in an effort to start over somewhere else, somewhere where they could pass as white among people who didn’t know them otherwise, said Johnson’s son, Sky.
“Her (aunt), she had this boyfriend who was also light-skinned, and he also wanted to go away and pass as white somewhere else,” Sky said. “She refused, so they actually broke up. She never married.”
Teretha married Simeon, a black man serving as a chaplain in the military, and majored in education in college. His work took Johnson and her two kids, Sky and Decker, across the country, including stops in Georgia, Virginia, Colorado and then Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.
“My favorite state was New Jersey,” she said. “It was ideally located: It wasn’t very far from New York and Philadelphia.
“I never thought I’d live in Champaign, Illinois. When I came to this state, I thought it was terrible. It was so different.”
But life here grew on Johnson and her family. So did teaching, a profession she’d dabbled in before but pursued full-time during World War II, when her husband was overseas and there was a need at home.
“They needed a kindergarten teacher, and they asked if I’d do it,” she said. “So I did.”
Teretha recalls the early 1950s as years that Champaign didn’t have kindergarten classes within the district. Instead, parent-teacher associations subsidized teachers for makeshift kindergarten classes, which is how she got her start locally. There was a rotation through various schools: Lawhead and Marquette, which no longer exist; Washington Elementary; and finally Bottenfield, at the time a predominantly white school.
“I was a black teacher at that school, and it was always like a big deal,” she said. “I didn’t understand it.”
Her students, she said, loved her classroom. And despite teaching not being part of her original life plan, she said she never found it difficult.
“The kids wanted to be in my room,” she said. “I had programs that were interesting, and I presented things in different ways. When I went to school, you just read stuff from a book. But we had all kinds of activities.”
For one, there was the annual, three-day “circus.” Johnson had help turning her room into a circus tent, and she drew caged animals on the chalkboards for effect.
“I can draw animals, but I could never draw people,” she said with a laugh.
Among the students who enjoyed life under the big top: former Champaign Mayor Don Gerard, who she said dressed up a clown in her circus. Gerard was actually the second mayor she had as a student. The first, back in Georgia: Maynard Jackson, who’d go on to become Atlanta’s first black mayor.
Johnson remained a teacher for nearly 30 years, staying at second grade for as long as she could.
It was her favorite grade to teach “because the kids were more amenable,” she said. “They liked the teacher, and the teacher liked them.”
The span of her career makes it difficult for Johnson to leave her Savoy apartment without seeing someone she knows, no matter where they are, said son Sky.
“Invariably, people will recognize her,” he said. “In a doctor’s office. At the store. People stop her, say hi, then they want to get a picture taken and a commotion starts.”
Her son figures she’s touched at least “600 or 700” lives through her career — including a civil-rights icon (longtime NAACP chairman Julian Bond) and a star musician (5th Dimension singer and “Solid Gold” host Marilyn McCoo), both one-time students of Johnson’s in Georgia.
“The youngest (former student) now, though, is probably 45,” Sky said.
Two weeks shy of her 104th birthday, Johnson spends most of her time these days with her poodle, Satchel, who cozies up next to her in the recliner. The walls of her apartment are dotted with black-and-white photos, reminding visitors of the long life she’s led.
“I just didn’t die,” she said.