A Civil Rights Journey, Campus Living, and an Ode to Children's Books
It's Minnesota Alumni's quarterly books roundup.
You would be hard pressed to find a more thorough or concise history of how the Civil Rights struggle played out in the Twin Cities than Josie R. Johnson’s memoir, Hope in the Struggle (University of Minnesota Press), written with Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Little.
Johnson, one of Minnesota’s most legendary Civil Rights activists and a former University of Minnesota faculty member and regent, was born and raised in Texas. She moved to Minneapolis in 1956 when her then-husband was hired by Honeywell. At that time, black people made up just 3 percent of the population of the Twin Cities, she writes, and were relegated to particular sections of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Despite having three small girls, Johnson wasted no time getting involved in civic matters, joining the board of the Minneapolis NAACP and the League of Women Voters and working as a community organizer for the Minneapolis Urban League. Among her causes: trying to improve black parents’ experiences of the school system (a fight, sadly, that continues to this day) and passing a fair housing bill in Minnesota, a state notorious for housing discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and other minority groups. She found herself lobbying state legislators who had never before spoken to a black woman.
Enlisting the help of Governor Elmer Andersen (B.B.A. ’31), Johnson and her colleagues succeeded in getting the bill passed in 1961, making Minnesota one of the first states in the nation to do so.
Yet, Johnson was just getting started. In succeeding years, she took part in the historic March on Washington and voter registration drives during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, served as a fair housing, jobs, and education adviser to Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin (B.A. ’39, M.A. ’42, Ph.D. ’48), and helped form the city’s Commission on Human Development and the North Side youth organization The Way.
Next came Johnson’s long involvement with the U—she helped found the Department of Afro-American Studies in the late 1960s and became the first black person elected to the Board of Regents in 1971. She summarizes that experience as any true Minnesotan would: “Being the only African American on the Board of Regents was interesting.” In other words, it was difficult and frustrating. “I learned quickly that my suggestions and observations were not immediately heard or acknowledged,” she writes. “Not only that, but the board was surprised that my interests were broader than only minority issues and concerns … but the members seemed to only ask and listen when I talked about diversity issues.”
After moving briefly to Colorado, helping establish her alma mater Fisk University’s first alumni association, and earning a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Johnson returned to the Twin Cities in 1985, newly divorced, her daughters grown.
She had focused her doctoral research on the education of African American children during the years before 1954, when, she writes, “Black parents clearly maintained the view of our ancestors that education was emancipation.” The U’s College of Education offered her a senior fellow position and she began working through the Minneapolis Public Schools to encourage more parent involvement. (Her assistant was Carol Johnson—no relation—who later became superintendent of schools for the city.)
Johnson organized speakers and events around Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the U, prepared a lengthy report on minority programming, and organized a 1991 forum on diversity. Her many accomplishments ultimately led to Johnson being named to the (lengthily titled) position of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Provost with Special Responsibility for Minority Affairs for the Office for Multicultural and Academic Affairs.
As she worked her way through this impressive list of civil rights and educational accomplishments, Johnson developed friendships with many Minnesota luminaries, including Vice President Walter Mondale (B.A. ’51, J.D. ’56), Macalester Professor Emeritus of History Mahmoud El-Kati, Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser (B.A. ’44, J.D. ’48), and Minneapolis NAACP President Matthew Little.
Johnson’s memoir covers a lot of difficult territory, but one thing rings clear throughout: She has met these myriad challenges and difficulties with intelligence, energy, and hope.
And … the roundup
For a completely different take on Minnesota life, pick up the latest novel by Lorna Landvik, Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes) (University of Minnesota Press). Landvik, a Minneapolis-based comedian and writer, is probably best known for her first novel, Patty Jane’s House of Curl. Radical Hag traces the life and times of a small Minnesota town through the unpredictable and occasionally controversial columns of its longtime correspondent, Haze Evans.
Kids can learn about our state, too, in an instructive and beautifully illustrated picture book called The Lost Forest (University of Minnesota Press) by Phyllis Root, with artwork by Betsy Bowen. This is the story—complete with maps and wildlife lists—of 40 acres of old growth white pine that was never cut down because of a faulty survey. It wasn’t until 1958 that someone noticed the gigantic 350-year-old trees growing near Blackduck, Minnesota. Happily, they are still preserved today as the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area, part of the Chippewa National Forest.
Fans of children’s literature can’t do better than The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter (University of Minnesota Press) by Leonard S. Marcus, with a foreword by Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the U’s Children’s Literature Research Collections. Marcus curated the wildly popular New York Public Library exhibit of the same name, which ran from 2013 to ’14. The book, a collaboration between Marcus and the U’s Kerlan Collection, is essentially a lavishly illustrated catalog of the New York exhibit, merged with items from the U’s fabled collections.
Feeling nostalgic for your college days? Take a look at the comprehensive view of university residence halls found in Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (University of Minnesota Press) by Carla Yanni, an art history professor at Rutgers University. Yanni specializes in social architecture and few places are more intensely social than the college dorm. Her book includes some particularly fascinating sections on the class and racial barriers faced by prewar students, the rise of the postwar skyscraper-style residence hall, and the recent use of fancy new dorms in student recruitment.