Former regent continues lifelong civil rights quest

by Megan Boldt

Ever since she was a child growing up in Texas, former University administrator Josie R. Johnson has been involved in the fight for civil rights. She remembers knocking on door after door with her father, gathering signatures for a petition to eliminate the poll tax.
That was only the beginning of her constant involvement in the struggle for equality.
“I’ve been involved all my life,” Johnson said.
Her father was a dining-cart porter, a prestigious job in the African-American community. Johnson remembers him as being actively involved in the community.
The former regent obtained her degree in sociology at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where she met her future husband, Charles. They moved to Minnesota in 1956.
Johnson became involved in numerous organizations, such as the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She has also been heavily involved in organizations such as the U.S. League of Women Voters, the Harriet Tubman Center and the University Foundation.
In the late 1960s, as Johnson arrived at the University, protests supporting an African-American studies program erupted on the University’s campus.
“I was a part of the first department of African-American Studies,” Johnson said.
She resigned from her instructor position in 1971 and took on a new position as a member of the Board of Regents.
“We were very much involved with issues of student and faculty rights,” Johnson said.
During her time as a regent, the board also created the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, she said.
Specifically, there were discussions over the enrollment and hiring of minority students and faculty members.
“Everything that came up at that time had to do with equality of women or students and faculty of color,” Johnson said.
Her husband was transferred to Denver, Colo., where she became the chief of staff for Colorado’s first African-American lieutenant governor.
But she could not stay away from Minnesota too long, she said. She returned to Minneapolis in 1986.
“This is home for me. I love Minneapolis. I love Minnesota,” Johnson said.
Shortly after returning home, she organized a black-parent advocacy group in the College of Education. The program encouraged parents to get involved in the public schools.
In 1990, then University President Nils Hasselmo appointed Johnson director of the All University Forum on Diversity.
“The purpose of the forum was to look at the issue of diversity at the University,” Johnson said. “We wanted to know what kind of images and impressions people had of us.”
She then became the vice president of academic affairs. Johnson recently retired but still remains connected with the University.
She said things have been accomplished in the fight for equality for minorities, but more needs to be done.
“Diversity is definitely a part of the University’s strategic planning, but the University has a long way to go before we make a difference,” Johnson said.
Johnson suggested that the University continue to recruit and retain minority students and faculty members.
“We need to remain vigilant and stay on the case,” she said.
With Black History Month coming to a close, Johnson said it is important to find time to learn the history. People are too busy and impatient to set aside this time, Johnson said.
“I’m convinced if we don’t have Black History Month, people will forget,” she said. “I truly believe it’s important to find time to focus on the history of the African-American people.”
Black history is more than just a month, Johnson said. It should not be limited to just February.
“We need to have it integrated as a part of American history,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, it will get there some day.”

Megan Boldt welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3212.