Reference Entry

Johnson, Pauline Byrd Taylor

Carson Grath. Leftwich

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Johnson, Pauline Byrd Taylor

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educator, writer, and community activist, was born Pauline Byrd in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Edith Belle Hill Byrd, a hairdresser, and Oscar Byrd, an accountant. Her ancestors descended from a Kentucky slave owner and his black mistress, who educated their children and sent them north with money and wagons before the Civil War broke out. Her family was well known as one of southwest Michigan's aristocratic black families. Her grandfather, Forrest Hill, owned numerous properties and, as a teamster and builder, constructed several roads and two buildings at Kalamazoo College. Her grandparents, with whom Pauline and her mother lived after her parents divorced in 1906, emphasized courage, responsibility, hard work, and, above all, education. Her family was clearly inspired by the principles of Booker T. Washington, the foremost black spokesman of the early twentieth century. His emphasis on industrial education and attainable goals for middle-class blacks that included property ownership, self-employment, and small business success spoke directly to the values of the Byrd family. Johnson's family always lived in white neighborhoods. These standards and sense of social responsibility led Johnson's family to enroll her not in the one largely black elementary school in town but rather in an all-white school close to their home, which was accomplished since Kalamazoo public schools were not legally, only geographically, segregated.The emphasis on education continued as Johnson attended Kalamazoo Central High School as the only black student in her class of sixty. Many in the black community did not support Johnson as she pursued her education. According to Mrs. Johnson, “In those days Negroes did not go to high school. That was almost like going to college. They would say, ‘There's no sense in going to high school—what do you want to go with those white folks for? You don't need a high school education to be a maid or a cook’” (Moerdyk, 224). According to her friend and contemporary Judge Charles Pratt, many blacks also considered her and her family “prideful of their position” (Moerdyk, 224). To make matters worse, members of the Allen Chapel African Methodist Church snubbed her, so she turned instead to the First Church of Christian Science, which she believed to have healed her of a serious childhood illness: leaky heart valves. She remained a member throughout her life. When she graduated from Central High School in 1922, she immediately went on to Kalamazoo College, a small, private, liberal arts college. In 1926 she became the first black to graduate from the college, with a degree in English. She obtained a teaching certificate and applied for a teaching position in the Kalamazoo public schools, but her application was ignored. She then spent one year at the University of Chicago pursuing a master's degree in Social Work. Deciding that teaching appealed to her more, she began her teaching career in an all-black, one-room schoolhouse in rural Cass County, a stop on the Underground Railroad in Clinton Township, southwestern Michigan, where many escaped slaves settled, in 1929.In 1930 she received an offer to teach at Lincoln Ridge Junior College near Louisville, Kentucky. Whitney Moore Young Jr., who went on to be executive director of the National Urban League from 1961 to 1971, was one of Johnson's students. He credited Johnson as the teacher who had been the greatest influence on him and kept in touch with her until his death in 1971.Though her teaching experience was a success, the level of prejudice in the South made Johnson uncomfortable. She returned to Kalamazoo and married Chester Taylor whom she met while volunteering at the Frederick Douglass Community Center for Negroes, started during World War I for returning African American veterans. He was, according to Johnson, “a very fine fellow, … he was smart and hardworking…. He went to school at Western Michigan University for awhile and then he painted houses” (Moerdyk, 241). In 1933 she gave, birth to her only child, Edith Joanne. Johnson, however, felt constrained by marriage and motherhood, divorcing her husband in 1939. She then moved to Gary, Indiana, and took a teaching job at Roosevelt High School, a brand new all-black school. In the early 1940s Gary's school system experienced an influx of African American students due to wartime factory expansions that employed many blacks from the Deep South. Roosevelt High School employed professional African American teachers from all over the United States. During these years she visited Chicago regularly and wrote articles for the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, two top black newspapers.In 1944 Johnson applied again to Kalamazoo public schools. This time she was hired. As the first African American schoolteacher in Kalamazoo, Johnson started teaching in 1945 at Lincoln Elementary, where most of the city's black students were concentrated. She also served as the first woman director of the Douglass Community Association, a local community center. She was executive secretary for a Community Self-Survey titled Negroes in Kalamazoo, cosponsored by Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She also served on a committee for the Michigan Board of Education that published a bulletin on intercultural education, a popular educational trend that sought to teach children about other cultures to reduce racial hostility and encourage desegregation. In July 1946 Johnson was invited to attend the Bureau of Intercultural Education, a nonprofit consulting institute in New York City. She received a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1947 to attend New York University's School of Education to study the applications of intercultural education. The Rosenwald Fund, active from 1917 to 1949, funded blacks and whites in pursuit of racial equality through mostly educational means. When the experimental Center for Human Relations at NYU opened in 1947, Johnson had a prominent role in developing the curriculum designed to promote positive race relations within educational, social, governmental, and industrial agencies.After a year in New York City, Johnson returned home to teach high school in Kalamazoo. In 1957 she married Clifford Johnson, a bail bondsman and rental property owner who died of a heart attack in 1967. Pauline Johnson had a difficult time during the civil rights movement of the mid- to late 1960s. African American students had become more militant and deplored her commitment to working within the system to correct its wrongs. Her commitment to the Republican Party, originally the party of racial equality, her adamant opposition to busing, and her fastidious adherence to middle-class morals gave her the reputation as an accommodationist. She bitterly denounced these attempts to portray her in an unfavorable light, as she had worked, in her own way, all her life to further positive race relations in her community. She retired in 1969 at the height of the controversy over busing in Kalamazoo, which she opposed on the grounds that it was not educationally sound for children to spend time riding the bus when they could be learning in school. After her retirement she was active in local politics in Kalamazoo and wrote for numerous local publications and the Christian Science Monitor. Though she was highly respected by many, until her death white liberals and most African Americans could never forgive her conservative political leanings and refusal to endorse the methods, though not the principles, of the civil rights movement.

Reference Entry.  1250 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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