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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWEE: Mrs. Wilhelmina W. Johnson
INTERVIEWER: Joel Buchanan
DATE: May 27, 1981
B: Can you tell us something about your childhood, please?
J: Well, growing up as a black girl in the South, so far as I'm
concerned, I had a good life. My father was a Methodist minister,
and there were six in our family; four children survived out
of the six. I'm the fourth child. I consider my childhood
a very good one. There were setbacks, as in any childhood,
but I had a very fine mother and father. They were Christian
My mother was the center of my life. She was a very fine,
spirited woman, and she loved her children very dearly. I
happened to be a child that was rather delicate, sickly, and
maybe I was pampered because I leaned on my mother for quite
a bit and she gave me, at the very beginning, high self-esteem.
She always said that even though I was sickly, one day I was
going to be a strong, fine girl. I kept that in mind, but I
stayed at her skirts all of the time. I went to her for
My life was a rather good life that consisted of church life
quite a bit. Being a minister's daughter, I had to go to church.
That was one of the main things in our lives. But I don't
regret that at all, however there were times I didn't want to
go. Life went on. My mother and father particularly taught
us the good things of life, tried to give a positive direction,
and so I was not exposed to many of the vices. I grew up
innocently about knowing the evils of the world. I wasn't
taught to hate, so that didn't dominate my life. I did not.
In those days, black people in their community had all the things
that they had because they were set aside from the white
community. We had all the things that we needed to sustain
us. Therefore, we were not taught tohatewhites, and whites
didn't mean any more to me than anybody else because I didn't
know anything about hating people because of their color.
I had to learn that in later life which was very painful.
So my life went along very slowly, and I had good elementary
grade teachers, took an interest and they taught us all the
things they were able to teach us. They were limited in their
education because they were not exposed to college. Just the
very elite in those days and the people who had means were
able to go to college. They came back, and since teaching was
the highest profession they taught us. I had the privilege of
having some teachers who had had some years of college.
I hadn't gone to church-related schools. However, the teachers
who taught us knew fully what they knew because the teachers
before them, they had what they called the Yankee teacher from
the South who taught them in these schools that the Freedmen's
Bureau had. They had taught them the fundamentals very well,
and they were able to impart it to us. Not only that, they
were motivators. They were people who not only motivated you,
they were people who were really interested in seeing you
grow. I was particularly blessed to have those kind of teachers.
My father, being a minister, decided that he wanted us to have
a family life instead of moving from place to place, so I
lived in Palatka until I reached the junior high school years.
All of my elementary work was done at Central Academy where
we had from one to twelve grades [C.C. Walker, Principal].
We had classrooms just like you have today. I remember very
well the particular building. It was a wooden, two-story
building which had many rooms, and each teacher had his or
her own room.
Coming back to how we survived in those days, with reference
to purchasing food and clothes and what have you, my mother
was a finished seamstress and she made all of our clothes. In
fact, she made my clothes up through junior college. She was
a very fine seamstress and she would buy very beautiful material
and make these beautiful dresses that she would draft.
She did not have patterns, but she was a very smart woman when
it came to drafting patterns and things of that sort.
Coming up, the thing that I was interested in most was reading.
I liked to read. I remember anything about being interested
in music. I don't know how that happened, but I can give you
a little background with reference to how I came to like music.
My father was a minister, as I said before,.and he had quite
a bit of trouble with organists in his church. In those days
they were very limited, and you had to do unusual things to
keep them. They had to be pampered and spoiled, and he had
the very sad experience of being without an organist more than
having one. So he said one day he was going to have an organist
because he was going to raise an organist. He was going to
raise a girl that could learn to play. So at a very early age,
my mother had exposed me to a teacher.
They had learned to read music back in those days and they had
singing groups, and my mother knew quite a bit of music from
the theoretical point, but she said I was going to learn to
play. I don't remember wanting to learn to play at all, any
kind of instrument, however, I took the music.as a little girl,
beginning about five years old, and at six years old I played
my first hymn. It was an old-fashioned organ, and myvfather
pumped the organ, and that night he even cried because he felt
that his prayers had been answered. Believe me, from that
day on, I don't know how the music got there, but I became
interested and I have taken music throughout my entire life, I
have been associated with music.
I began to like it very much after I found out that I had to
be made to learn it, because my mother gave one whipping. I
went to a teacher four times, and in those days they were
charging twenty-five cents per lesson, and she spent one
dollar. For four weeks I would go each time and when I would
come back she would ask me, "How did you do?" I said, "I
didn't do so good." She let me go for three times, but she said,
"When you come back from the fourth time, you're going to go
back and know that and something else." And I remember very
well my mother saying to me, "I'm going to take my sewing and
I'm going to sit right by this piano. I have this little switch
here and every time you miss, you're going to feel it." I
sat there scared to death, but I knew that if I hit the wrong
key what was going to happen to me, and you believe it or not,
it did happen.
B: Did it?
J: It did happen. I don't know how it happened, how people learn
through pressure and a switch, but I can play today that
particular piece of music. I can sit right there at my piano
behind me and play the piece of music, and I said that if I
ever became a composer, I would dedicate that to my mother as
a theme--that particular piece of music would be the theme.
B: What was the name of it?
J: I don't know the name of it. All I know is that I can play it
and it was an unusual thing. I never from that day on received
another whipping. I don't know whether it was miraculous.
B: You want to play it for me?
J: Oh, thank you. (She plays.)
B: Very good. Now what age was that, when you learned that?
J: Six years of age.
B: And you still recall it, so it's true that once something is
well learned it's never forgot.
J: You never forget it if you learn it. That was a thrilling
experience with me and I learned to like music. During my
childhood days, I spent much of my time practicing music,
reading good books, not playing very much--very serious minded.
Unfortunately for me, I took everything in life seriously,
people and everything I did. I became a very serious-minded
person, and as a result of that I didn't have too many friends.
B: Can you just tell me something about the schooling? Were the
materials very good? Teachers, behavior of children, things
of that nature, can you tell us something about the school life?
J: Equipment, materials were very scarce. We didn't have much.
We only had homemade things, and it was the innovative mind
of the teacher and how well she could produce something.
The teachers went all out to try to find materials. We used
the teachers' materials and second hand materials that maybe
would come down from white schools, picking up books here
and there, people interested coming in, but we did not have
extensive materials. But through that we learned quite a bit.
This was the interesting thing about it, even though the
teachers had limited knowledge, preparation, education, they
learned as they taught because of the fact that they would
go all out to extend themselves to find something that could
interest the children. They would turn the children on because
they knew that they had to produce a good product.
I remember the children, we did not have the problems. Children were
different in those days because they came from good homes
motivated by Christian-experienced parents who took time to
teach their children right and wrong. That does not mean that
we were removed from all the vices. We had children who
were wayward, just like you have today. If you wanted to
say that, to talk about the children, they were good children.
This is why so many children did well, because they came from
good homes that we don't have today. A child could not do
to the teacher what the children are doing now because they
didn't know how, they knew better and they were well disciplined.
They used the switch quite a bit, too. That's something that
we have removed form the child. The Bible.Isays, "Traineth
a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will
not depart from it." Spare the rod, spoil the child, and in
those days the Biblical application was there so far as a child
was concerned at home. The teacher didn't have all this business
of discipline. You went there and the time that we were there,
we were taught. We didn't have time for foolishness. So,
that's one of the things that I'm sorry that the children don't
have today. First of all, they don't have God-fearing parents
to take the time to be interested in what the child is doing.
My mother followed me in every activity. If she knew I was
going to be in anything, she would be there, and she would
be there for all of her children. This is what you don't have
B: Were there many activities at school?
J: Several. We didn't have as many as we have today, but we had
small choruses, glee clubs, athletic clubs, literary clubs
andthings of that sort in the high school. In the grades
of course, you didn't have that. We had operettas. I was
always in an operetta because I was in music and so it was very
interesting. We had, too, what we called a time for meditation
in the schools where we prayed and we said Bible verses. Many
of the Bible verses I know today 1 learned in school, which
is not happening today, so the Christian influences in the school...
B: Can you recall any of your teachers, or anything that was
unique about school that came out of you life in your grades?
J: In the fifth grade, I remember very well, every day we would
read and in our reading we had a glossary. We had a group of
words that we had to identify so far as the meaning was concerned.
We would look up those words and then use them in sentences.
In the fifth grade we had the word "defy," and we had the word
"threshold." I remember very well in looking up the word,
I found out the word "defy" means to dare, and "threshold"
meant your home. So we were asked to take the two words and
make a sentence and we intended to work with them and work them
and finally we came up with a sentence, "I defy you to walk over
my threshold." I just thought that was the most brilliant
thing. I became thrilled with it. I went home just telling
my mother, "I defy you to walk over my threshold." Momma
said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "I defy you to
walk over my threshold, that means I dare you to walk over my
threshold." Momma says, "You better move away from me, or I'm
going to dare you." But I became thrilled with that, and words
had a good effect on me. I said then.that I wanted to learn
about the English language, learn it very well, and I did learn
B: That was fifth grade?
J: That was in fifth grade, and I was motivated from that time on
to make music and English, particularly English, my main
subject. I spent a lot of time in reading and studying, but
I got the basics of English.
B: Did you have a library in school?
J: We had a small library. It didn't have too much in it. As
I said, we'd had to have people give books and what not, but
we did have one.
B: Were you able to do a lot of your activities in church that
you learned in school?
J: In Sunday school I learned to sing, and I played for the Sunday
school practically all of my child life because that was
something I wanted to do. I affiliated with the Sunday school
mostly from that point of view.
B: You mentioned your father was a minister and did a lot of travelling
around or once you became steadfast in one area. Can you talk
to me about the socializing at home, your father being a minister,
people coming in, other ministers and so forth?
J: Many ministers visited our home. As children, we really didn't
have too much association with them only at the times when we
would be sitting around we would share experiences, but I
don't remember too much about the ministers.coming in, being
a part of our life. They would come to converse with my father,
and we would more or less not be a part of that.
B: Is there anything else about your growing up that you would
like to share with us?
J: I would like to speak about three teachers, the fourth, fifth
and sixth grade teachers in my school life. As I said, I
became enchanted with words in the fifth grade. Then we
began studying the actual use of the English language, that is
the eight parts of speech. The eight parts of speech were
taught so well to me because we acted the words. The words
became alive through activity. I remember when we started
with the noun and went through the eight parts of speech, and they
were put together and used in sentences. We learned how to
deal with voice, tenses, mood, sentences according to use,
sentences according to structure, learning how to put them
together. We learned all about composition, moving on from
composition to the higher forms of literature, English
literature, American literature and what have you, and all of
these higher forms of it. I remember learning so many poems
from the old composers, the old writers, rather. I'm thinking
of music now because both of them have come together. But
we learned about English literature. That was fascinating. I
think the most important type of literature was, I described,
I loved English literature. I learned so much about it. I
learned to read so many of the books in English literature.
Then when I came out, that was my first.love to teach.
B: You mentioned your fourth, fifth and sixth grade teachers. Can
you tell us something about them, their appearance, what were they
J: All of the teachers looked very well. They dressed well. Carried
themselves well. I remember particularly Carol Malloy, a
sixth grade teacher who was fortunate enough, she came from
Georgia and she went to Spetman College [Atlanta, Ga., women,
1881]. She had a very good education and she was a person who
carried herself very queenly and the children stood in awe of
her. They couldn't come up to her because she did not stretch
out towards the children. However, she did as she taught, tough.
She was removed as she walked among people because she walked
as though she was a queen of the earth, but when she taught,
she was bound to earth with her children. She imparted that which
she knew. She knew it very well and she imparted it to the
children, and she really was a person that could motivate you.
So, I remember Mrs. Malloy as a very outstanding person in
my life when I was a sixth grader. I remember her very well.
B: Were there very many men teachers at all during that time?
J: I remember my seventh grade English teacher was a man. He
knew how to teach grammar, not English. And if I learned anything,
I learned about the basics of grammar from this man that carried
me through college, because he taught it very well. He happened
to not have been a college graduate, and that was unusual.
And I learned it very, very well. I was going into the high
school and I had no trouble with the English going into high
school and I made the highest grades in that particular subject.
I had a good memory and this was a thing that bothered a lot
of teachers because I was very quiet. They didn't think they
were getting through to me, and the only way they knew it
was because I never raised my hand. I had to write but I
had a memory that I could not forget because I could recall
things. This amazed the teachers. Sometimes you sit and teach
children who never say anything. You don't think that they're
getting anything and you can only know what a child is getting
from a response and I responded in writing. I would almost
always get 100 in many of the subjects, particularly English.
I never got anything less that 98 or 99, and this is when
teachers began to notice me. It started in the fifth grade,
when teachers began to say, "Well, she's sitting back there quiet
as a mouse, but she's a very good student." This is how I
was perceived by teachers--that 1 could only write. I didn't
B: I see, very interesting. What about your high school days or
J: Those were the thrilling days. I went to Jacksonville to
Cookman Institute. My father had moved there. He thought
we had had the good life so far as down in the grades and at
that time I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, and he
thought that we should stretch out a little bit. So going
to Jacksonville was very fine in those days. Now let me get
back to the business of early days. You spoke of our transporta-
J: We didn't have a car in the early days. I remember my father
buying a car. He had moved to Jacksonville to a church called
Ebenezer, and my father, as I said before,.always wanted the
best. He wanted the best in clothes and everything else and
the first car he bought was a Cadillac, believe it or not.
B: How old were you at this time?
J: About fourteen. He had a better church and a little bit more
money, and at that time we were old enough to enjoy some things,
so he bought this Cadillac car. I was going to Cookman
Institute and I was in the ninth grade and we would come back
to Palatka. I'll tell you about this because it's very funny.
When he bought this car, it was not a brand new car, but it
was one of the old types. I imagine you could get a lot of
money for the kind of Cadillac he bought in those days. It
was a good car, and when you say Cadillac, you suppose that
that's the'best, and it was. Now, the dealer did not give
him a good deal on it, because when we made our first trip to
Palatka revisiting our old home, they had a wooden bridge
across the St. John's river and we had to cross that river
to get to Palatka. -My sister and I, I was fourteen, she was
twelve, were sitting in the back of the car. The car had a
rumble seat, I'm almost sure. My father and mother were sitting
in the front and my dad was going back in his Cadillac to a place
where he had been. We got on the bridge. That car ran well
until we got on the bridge crossing into Palatka, and that car
broke down. The tire went flat. We were on the bridge. It
made a high, very fine, piercing sound, a sharp sound, and it
went out and it tickled my sister and I. Brother, we laughed.
We laughed. But we laughed inside. We laughed so we couldn't
hardly hold it in. My father was so exasperated. He didn't
say anything so hegot the tire blown up and started again.
We didn't get anywhere before it started again and we had about
four blowouts on the bridge and my sister and I almost collapsed.
My dad said the last time, "You're laughing, you get and
you'll walk. You'll walk across this bridge." And I said,
"You know, we got to quiet down." Now that was the experience
with that Cadillac, but he got into Palatka and that car lasted.
We had that car fixed up. It was a very, very good car. It
lasted for quite some time.
B: Before you said that you all enjoyed traveling from one place
to another. How did you get around if you didn't have a car?
J: The train.
B: You took most of your belongings with you on the train?
J: Well, we would move in trucks. They would come and move our
things, when we were going from place to place. But automobiles
were not practical in those days. We didn't have a car. We
had bicycles and things of that sort. As kids, we had bicycles
in the driveway.
B: You haven't mentioned anything about Negroes and whites. At
that point your school was just Negro children.
J: That's right. We had no affiliation with the whites whatsoever.
Everything was separate and unequal. We didn't know any better.
We were immature. We did not know, and where there's a lack
of knowledge, you don't expect very much. We had aspirations,
but we were limited since- we were in a black world. That's
where we lived, and we were not encouraged to do any otherwise.
We thought that everything was all right and we were not looking
out into the white world because if you ventured out, you were
stopped before you could even get started. In those days there
was just a definite dividing line of black and white. White
over here, black over there. You went to your black theaters.
You went to your black churches. You went to your black parties
and things of that sort. It was a black and white world. No
coming together on anything.
B: So, in a sense, you all just did what you had to among yourselves.
J: Within ourselves. I didn't know that you could reach out for
more than that because our world was limited. When you think
about it, you aren't too many years removed from slavery, and
since black people had been under the yoke of slavery, they
hadn't removed too far. The have done fairly well, but they
haven't come far economically anywhere. They had nothing
so far as education, economics. No money.
B: Was slavery ever discussed to you by your family?
B: It was never discussed in your home?
J: No. My grandmother...
B: Did she share with you about it?
B: Can you recall some things she told you?
J: My grandmother came out of slavery. I think she was about ten
years old, so there wasn't too much she could tell us about the
cruelty of it. But she talked about her mother and the
cruel lash of slavery and the sadness of it. But my grandmother
was not exposed to that, but her mother, and her mother's mother
could tell you about the cruel yoke of slavery. And it left
its mark. Believe it or not, most black people came out with
a bit of pride and their heads held high even though they were
slaves. They didn't come bowed down under the yoke of slavery.
They were looking out because of the fact that they had something
that released their spirits, and that was the music that was
found. They really got their release of emotions through the
songs called the spirituals, and they had high hopes of God
in heaven. This is the only thing that gave black people hope
in those days. That is marked all the way from slavery right
on through this day--the Negro spiritual, the hope that Christian
experiences that those black people had back then. The hope.
When they got back from listening to the old slave masters, and
some of them were privileged to go to some of the churches and
sit way in the back somewhere, and they heard them talking
about a God of heaven that would deliver them some day.. They
had to be very bright people to come from the place that they came
from to latch on to that. That being, that really was the thing
that brought them through, and this was a thing that stabilized
the black people back there. There were people who were hopeful
that some day it would be a brighter day, and they lookedforward
to heaven. Their world was not of this world. They looked
forward to heaven being a brighter day. So we hadn't come into
the knowledge of the economical, financial world. We still are
kind of up in the clouds.
B: So you were innocent.
J: Yes. Innocent because we did not know and we're going to be
kept like that. But God made it so that we had insight, and
there were some who felt that there was something better in
B: Go back to school for one moment. In your learning and in the
teaching, did they talk very much about the blacks that had
the successful life? Were you taught about George Washington
J: That did not come out. George Washington Carver had not come
into prominence at that time.
After grade school, I went to a church-related school known as
Cookman Institute [Founded 1872 by Rev. Dr. S.B. Darnell] in
Jacksonville, Florida, and I spent all my high school years in
this school. However, the school changed its name during the
time I was a student there. I spent the first two years.
ninth and tenth grades, at Cookman Institute, but the time
came when the school was beginning to lose its students. It
was a falling away, and it was necessary for it to have new life
injected. At that time, the school at Daytona, which was founded
by Mrs. Mary McLeod [1875-1955] Bethune was financially defunct
and she was looking for an organization that could support her
financially so that the school would be secured. The name
of the school that she had founded was the Florida Normal
Industrial School for Girls, in Daytona Beach, Florida. In
1923, that Cookman Institute and Mrs. Bethune's school were
merged, and this particular school became known as Bethune-
Cookman Collegiate Institute. This was the first name that was
given to the school. At the time that the two schools came
together, two years of college were added to the school so that
I finished high school at the Bethune-Cookman Collegiate
My beginning year was 1923, and that time I was a junior in
high school. I was in the eleventh grade, and this was the
opening of a new world in all aspects with reference to my
life because everything changed. When I entered Bethune-
Cookman, that was the beginning of a new era in my life because
I had to board in. I was at that time living in Jacksonville
and so I went to Daytona Beach, my first time away from home.
When I got to the Bethune Collegiate Institute, I really didn't
know what to do; I didn't know what to expect. It was the first
time I'd been away from home and I was lost, so to speak.
However, it was an atmosphere that one would never forget.
The impact of those days have remained with me throughout my
life, and as a result of it, whatever I am today, Bethune-
Cookman should have the credit for it.
To give you a background of some of the life on the campus
at Bethune-Cookman, it was co-educational and so we had men
and women, and we had a dormitory building in which it housed
the women. There were two persons to a room, and this was the
type of schedule that we followed daily. We would arise 5:30
in the morning and we had what was known as a quiet hour--
fifteen minutes in which you would meditate, read the Bible
and pray. After that we would have our baths and get ready to
go to breakfast and after breakfast we would come back to the
dormitory, take care of our room, cleaning it up and fixing it.
Then we would get ready to go to class to follow our schedule
during the day until noon period when we would have our dinner.
During that time, Mrs. Bethune would preside at the dinner
hour and many times she would have experiences to relate.
When she had been on a tour she would come back and keep in
touch with the student body.
I would like to talk a little bit about Mrs. Bethune as a person
before I go into the real life of the school. First of all,
Mrs. Bethune was a dominating force on that campus and her
spirit was everywhere. It was a school that she had founded
and it was her school, even though it had merged with the
Cookman Institute. Mrs. Bethune was a dominating factor,
with Cookman in the background because we had come where her
school was rooted. So the whole spirit of the thing revolved
around her, and actually Cookman was almost swallowed up.
Now the history of that school, first of all, Mrs. Bethune was
an unusual woman. She was very talented, and we wouldn't say
that she was beauty of face but she had.a beautiful spirit.
She was a beautiful person and if you ever came in contact
with her, you would never.forget the experience. First of all,
she loved life and she loved people and she loved to serve
people. You can bet that meant in her life because of the fact
that she founded the school with $1.50 and five little girls,
and that was the theme of her life--serving others.
She came from slave parents and there were eleven children in
the family. Mrs. Bethune often related how she picked cotton
and how she had a life of toil, but out of the eleven children,
she seemed to be the brightest and she longed for the day that
she could go to school. It so happened that one day a lady came
down form a school. Her church had sent her to find black students
who were promising and would do well. Her name was Mary
Crisman. She was invited to Mrs. Bethune's home and her parents
told her that they had a little girl. She said that she wanted
to go away to school and she had this scholarship to go to
Scotia College in South Carolina, and she went there. The
Presbyterian church had sent this lady. So she said to her
parents and she wanted this opportunity. She went and worked
her way through school. She did all the kind of chores that
she could find to help her get through the school, and fast.
She came back and taught in the place that she was born, but
she became very restless because she had all this in her mind
to do and she said she had to do it. In.the meantime, she met
her husband, Bethune. She married him, very young, and he
couldn't understand why she couldn't settle down and be a wife.
But she said that she had a mission she had to perform and she
had to get a way to do it. So he was understanding. He
let her go first to Palatka, Florida, where she felt that she
could start a school. She stayed there two or three years
and she was unsuccessful, and she went back and her husband said,
"Well, now are you ready to settle down?" She said, "No."
She had got the call to go to Daytona, and she was bound to
go there. He could never understand but he did not ever
interfere with her, with reference to what she wanted in that
direction. So she went to Daytona. People thought she really
had gone crazy, talking about starting a school there in those
days. She persisted and she started with these firve little
girls, and she had a shack, and this is how she started
Bethune-Cookman with $1.50. But her message was so great, and
she was so dynamic in getting her message through to the people,
and this was a particular place where tourists came, very rich
people from all over the world came to Daytona Beach, and Mrs.
Bethune immediately began to seek out these people.
Among them she found a man named James Gamble who was president
of the soap company, and he became the president of her first
trustee board. He was the only trustee and he had his millions
and Mrs. Bethune did work him over. She sold the idea of this
school to this gentleman and asked that he be the president of
her first trustee board. He told her she didn't have any
trustees to be a board. She said that whatever she had, she
wanted him to head it up. That really began the Bethune-Cookman
movement forward with reference to money. He, in turn, influenced
his friends and the school began to grow because people saw
that it was a worthy thing and they began to put their money
B: Was that a large practice?
J: At her beginning, it was very small. Where the school is now
is not the same place.
B: Was it a very large campus when you were there?
J: Yes. It had grown quite extensively. All this took place
before I went to Daytona to school. This school had been
established and we came in after it had been there seven years,
but it didn't get enough finance to continue it, so this is
why she came under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal
B: Now you say you were a boarder. How much did it cost you to
go to school at that time?
J: It's hard for me to say. I imagine that my father paid maybe
150, 200 dollars a year.
B: How much did that include?
B: You said that your day started at 5:30. What time did it stop?
What time did you have to go to bed?
J: I guess there was no end to it. I'll go into that briefly.
After attending classes, according to schedule, you'd have
certain time, between that time and going to supper. Many times
the students would go to the library or have a little social with
each other, social hour, boys and girls, boyfriend, girlfriends
would get together and we would stroll on the campus and have
that time for social enjoyment. Then we would go to supper
and after that you would really have to go to the library again
and try to get your work ready. I think our last hour, the bell
would ring at ten o'clock. That's when we would go to bed.
B: You had a full day. Were you in school six days a week, seven
J: Five days a week. During the week service, I tell you, we had
some of the best people to speak at forum in the world because
people came from all parts of the world and lived there during
the time. I remember that we would have these people to speak
at different times, and I'll get to that a little later on.
On Tuesday nights, we would have what we would call forum.
It was an hour in which we got spiritual renewal. We would
talk about the Bible. We'd have some people to give an exegesis
of the Bible. Along with that we would have biblical quotations
that we all favored, the quotation would be given, and we
would share how we viewed life from a Christian standpoint.
We would have questions back and forth. This is how we became
interested in this type of forum, and it was a specialty.
B: Was this all of the students together?
J: Yes. We would be housed in the administrative building, which
was where we would have this. In fact, the services were held
Now let me say about something that was very important in lieu
of the life of it. On Sunday afternoon, we had what was called
a community hour. This was an hour in which Mrs. Bethune would
have people from all over the world visit and it started at
three o'clock. The glee club would have special music and
Mrs. Bethune would preside. That was her service. In this
particular service, the students would participate. We had
beautiful singing and these students would sometimes prepare
the most interesting things to say.
There were many biblical verses, and I remember very vividly
at this time Mrs. Bethune was calling for students to give
an experience or to give a favorite biblical quotation. My
sister, Naomi Cameron today, she was Mary Williams, got up
and said, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens
me." And Mrs. Bethune picked up on that. She said, "Hold
to that! Hold to that, young woman. That will be the thing
that will pull you through." I said that will be, that was
one time in my life that I understood what she meant by having
a biblical saying applied to your life. My biblical quotation
was this, and I don't know why I said this: "Lord, my heart
is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty. Neither do I exercise
myself in matters that are too high for me." That is the
131st Psalm. But my favorite quotation was, "The Lord is my
shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in
green pastures. He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the
path of righteousness for His name's sake." This is the Psalm
that was the basis of my life, and I feel that if I ever make
it, it's going to be because I see that. In the afternoon
services that we would have, Mrs. Bethune would say, "This is
a democracy working in the South. White people, you sit
where you can. If you don't want to sit beside a black person,
sorry. I am sorry because we do not discriminate here."
B: She would say that openly?
J: Yes, and she would say it with all the emphasis that her voice
could command, and she said it fearlessly because she was in
her own territory and she did not back up. She would say this
to people and many of their faces would go red. She said,
"I have no apology to make to this. You sit where you can and
we're glad to have you. But if you want to get up and go
out, that's your privilege." This is the way she spoke.
Truly, yes she did. She apologized to no man because she was
black, because she felt this inequity had been put upon the
people of the South known as Negroes. It was high time for
that to cease, and she was an advocate of equality in every-
thing. This is where I began to pick up on what it was all
about, because even in the Christian school that I went to,
we never talked about race. But this was a dominant factor
at Bethune-Cookman College. In this administration building
there was something that echoed her life in that it said,
"Enter to learn. Depart to serve." I never forgot that, and
at Bethune-Cookman, all around, all the buildings would have
such words as, "Think. Speak softly. Be courteous. Be kind
to all people." All of these things made images in my mind
that stayed with me forever.
B: So, you're saying that Mrs. Bethune was on campus and intermingled
with the students all the time.
J: Intermingling all the time. She called the children of the
people her children. She referred to the school as her school
and these were her children. Many times we didn't agree with
Mrs. Bethune in things she said, but she told us that she had
founded that school, that was her school. If you didn't want
to abide by the things she had there, go find your school, because
this is Mrs. Bethune's school and as long as you're here, you're
under what this school requires you to be under. If you don't
like it, you can go elsewhere.
B: Did you have a dress code?
J: Yes. We had uniforms. We had blue skirts and white blouses,
or a blue suit in the winter time. The boys had blue trousers,
white shirt, black tie.
B: Was that all the time you wore it?
J: Yes. It was all the time. When we would go into public affairs
on Sunday, we would dress in our uniform, and if we were going
to any other type of activity we would do this. This was the
thing. Everybody looked very nice because everybody wore the
same thing, and there wasn't any problem of finance, so far
as that's concerned. You bought your blue skirt and what not.
That was a part of your attire when you applied to come to
school. They had the catalogues which would tell you the
things to bring and among that you had to bring this uniform.
If you didn't have that to go out into public, you didn't go.
Before we would go to this community meeting we had what we
called an inspection. The girls would stand in a line and the
young men would stand in a line and the man, the commandant,
as we called him--it was right after the first world war--would
stand and inspectthe boys to see if everything was in place.
It had to be very immaculate. And the young ladies were
inspected by the matrons.
B: What about your hair?
J: Well, you could fix your hair like you wanted, but you wore
black shoes and...
J: Not any. We did not. It was a religious school and we didn't
have that. You could use powder and your eyebrows, but we
didn't have a lot of lipstick and rouge.
B: What about jewelry?
J: Well, you didn't need any jewelry with attire like that and we
thought nothing about that. Now we weren't under a strict
discipline all the time. We had .times when we had parties.
We also had banquets. We had Christian organizations such
as Young Men's and Young Women's Christian Association, these
kind of activities. We had literary clubs, we had French
clubs, we had music clubs. We spoke French in the dining
room on the campus and wherever. It was a very interesting
thing. We had musical recitals.
I was among the first to give a musical recital because my
major was music. I remember very well one of -the pieces
that I played at that particular time. Mrs. Bethune was not
there, the dean of the college was having this and I had my
first encounter to play this particular piece and it was
twenty-two minutes long. I memorized it. It was called
the "Moonlight Sonata" composed by Beethoven. This was part
of our commencement program and it was the first recital ever
given at the school. There were four of us who participated--
Thelma Shehigh, Jennie Roundtree, and Louis Bartley were the
others. We were graduating from the music department and this
was part of our commencement. We were the first graduates to
have a recital.
I played the three movements, and many times while I was playing
this, there were little children in the audience that became
restless. I remember the going out while I was playing this.
When I played that piece of music I was so tired, but I was
so elated that I was able to memorize about eighteen or twenty
pages of music. There were three movements, and the last
movement was a very brilliant one. It was one in which I had
to use my forearms to make big chords and running passages
at the tone, and it was just a delight because I was just
floating with the music. It was something that I enjoyed doing,
and later on I did a recital and that was one of the particular
pieces that I rendered.
B: What was the discipline like at this time?
J: We had something called the demerit system, and there were things
that you could receive a certain number of demerits for if you
had done something that was against the laws of the institution.
That would be a demerit against you, and this demerit system
grew up to a certain number of demerits, and when you had
reached that, you were sent home from that school. I think
J: Yes, which meant that you would be very careful not to reach
that point. When you did reach it, if there were enough of them,
Mrs. Bethune would have us all come to the auditorium. This
was one of the saddest times, because all the students would
be there and Mrs. Bethune would have you stand and she would
give you the lecture before you were dismissed.
B: Really? Publicly?
J: Yes, and she would say, "May God have mercy on your soul."
And you would never forget that. That didn't mean that you
couldn't ever come back to that school. You could go away
for that year and then you would be on trial. You could come
back, but you never forgot the time that she sent you away from
there. There would be a pall over that entire student body
for days after that. We lived through that. We endured that.
But it was good for us because it was purgation. We were
able to see in a very vivid way that it didn't pay. Now she
had a philosophy at Bethune-Cookman, the training of the head,
the heart, and the hand.
B: That was her philosophy?
J: This was her philosophy for students. But her philosophy was,
"Enter to learn. Depart to serve." That was her message to
her children. She believed in giving the best that she had
and one of the sentences that she would say quite often was,
"Give to the world the best you have and the best will come
back to you." Her spiritual life and her spirit permeated that
whole campus. She could attract people. If you heard her speak
one time, you would want to hear her speak over and over
because she was a very dynamic and articulate speaker.
B: Was she the person that signed report cards?
J: No. Let me go back to how Bethune-Cookman became the school
that it is today. After Cookamn Institute and the Daytona
Normal and Industrial Institute merged, the Methodist church
came in as the person who would have jurisdiction over the school.
So she was under the auspices, at that time, of the Methodist
Episcopal church. According to the Methodist Episcopal church,
this was just another church school, and so the curriculum
changed and many things of the college changed. By the two
schools merging, meant that they could have the two-year college
in which they could work to what they called a graduate school.
They could get a diploma which would entitle them to teach,
because the state at that time required that you had to have
some years of college, and Bethune-Cookman was one of the first
schools that qualified for that. They would get this certificate
and they would not have to take an examination. Now in the
process of that, we had another name at that school and at
that time that became Bethune-Cookman College. The enrollment
was very low because it was a small school and Mrs. Bethune
saw that the school continued to grow. It meant that she had
to get more popular so they began to reach out and get more land
and they began to reach out for more. Even though the Methodist
church gave a certain amount of money, everything was growing
and she began to get people who were donors who would give
large sums of money so that the school could have a program to
embrace everything that she wanted. The school grew by leaps
and bounds. She was the first president. She stayed there all
of her life. She spent all of her years at Bethune-Cookman.
Now, Mrs. Bethune was not there all of the time. She was out
with a professional group of singers from the school who brought
in large sums of money. This was a time when music was a
dominant part of the school program. She had very good
specialists there that would train these people, were really
professionals, and she would go and give her message and
then they would give the special music. They would go to some
churches, but they would go to large groups in cities like
New York, Chicago and places like that in the West, where
her school could advertise Bethune-Cookman. That's how Mrs.
Bethune became well known. These white friends who were
philanthropists would have people to give to the schools. They
would have place where she would be invited to give her message
and these young people would sing and she would give her message.
Out of some of them she'd come back with hundreds of thousands
B: How many years were you on campus there?
J: About five.
B: During that time, did you ever have any direct competition with
J: All the time.
J: I was one of her chief--I'm saying it rather modestly because
I don't term myself a leader,.but I was one of the leaders of
the student body with reference to anything, good or bad, but
mostly good. I don't know, I could feel the pulse. At times
we'd go to her home and just sit down in conversation. She'd
ask us about the school. How did we feel about it? How did
we feel about her? She didn't mind me criticizing her. I'd
been in her office any number of times and she'd say, "Wilhelmina,
how are you getting along?" I would say, "Mrs. Bethune, I'm
doing pretty well." She would hear students. She was a very
fair-minded person. She did not feel that the teacher was the
last word. She always had two sides of the question. She would
hear if there was a faculty member that would bring a grievance.
She would not listen to just the dean of this complaint, she
would listen to the teacher and she would listen to the dean
and then she would do the role, or she would have counselors
to help her decide what was what.
I remember very vividly, it was concerning our music. As a
student, we were students just like students of today. We
would delve into the curriculas of the school. When we thought
we weren't getting a fair shake, we would say if this is put down
here for us to have, to study, and we didn't feel the teacher
either competent or what not, would evade teaching the basic
things to us, we didn't like it. As music students, we did not
like it, and I remember one time a group of us got together, it
was a small group. I said,"You know, we're not getting this."
We poured out the things that this catalogue said we should have.
I said, "I'm not getting this and what are we going to do
about it?" They'd say, "Well, I think we ought to do something."
I said, "Like what?" I said, "Let's go to Mrs. Bethune."
I would always be the one to say let's go there. I said,
"Let's not go to the teacher, because we're not going to get
what we need. We'll go to Mrs. Bethune. We'll go in and file
a complaint." Mrs. Bethune would have a secretary there
writing down everything that we'd say. She'd say, "Well, you'll
hear from me." She had a very forceful voice. She said, "You
will hear from me."
She would call us in and she would have the teachers there who
were teaching these courses. When she would have this conference,
the teacher would walk in and when they would see us they would
look very disturbed. She wouldn't know anything about this. I
remember this particular conference when she had all her
materials there, catalogue and everything that was necessary,
our complaint and all, she would begin counseling. She would
then first question the teachers. "Mrs. Brown, I would like
to know, according to this catalogue, are you teaching such and
such a course in music? Are you teaching this?" "Well, Mrs.
Be..." Mrs. Brown, I asked you are you teaching this course?
You are either teaching this or you are not. Are you teaching
this?" "Well, I..." It was very good for the school and good
for the teachers because we had very good relationships. We
were honest. We didn't go behind the teacher's back. Mrs.
Bethune asked us did we want to confront the teachers, and I
was the spokesman, and I told her, "Yes, that's why we were
there." We felt that we should have some explanation. We
were due that as students.
B: That's good. Did you have white teachers as well as black?
J: Not at that time. That came later on. For Mrs. Bethune, life
was very active. She was a person who had to be in many things
because at that time, as I had said before, blacks were not
to the forefront. She was one of the first so far as a woman
was concerned to speak out very boldly for the equality of
justice for all people, and she was speaking primarily for her
people--the black people.
B: Was that discussed with you all in your different sessions
that you had with her?
J: They were discussed in our different sessions, and they were
also discussed in these community meetings. This was a highlight
of her theme--justice for everybody, and she finally got her
audience acclimated to her theme because they were there in
large numbers. If they disliked it they didn't show that,
because they came every Sunday and we didn't have room for them.
There was no room hardly for blacks, because it was white.
They were there and they were people of what you call the
upper echelon, people with money, people with a large degree
of intelligence. I never have thought that I was inferior to
anybody and I learned that in my early years. But I became
more aware at Bethune-Cookman because I learned, I had had so
much contact with white people, the high caliber of whites,
that I did not see the base part of it. .White people are just
white people to me. I had to learn that coming out teaching
and working the world, that there were base people, but the
people who came to Bethune-Cookman on campus, there were high
quality, high caliber. So I saw the best of the white race
and I became acclimated to white people. They were not a
novelty to me. White people are just white people and people
are just people to me because I think nothing of color, but
we had the opportunity to be close to them because we served
as guides to take them around the campus.
B: Oh, did you?
J: Yes we did, and many times they would say, "Do you get paid
for this?" We said, "No, it's just a courtesy." And many times
they would say, "Well take this." It would be ten or fifteen
dollars to the student. "We thank you for the opportunity."
They would ask us questions about Mrs. Bethune's personal life
and how did she communicate with students and did we stand in
awe. We said, "No, we didn't. We did not stand in awe of
Mrs. Bethune because Mrs. Bethune was a loving mother to us."
She was a very, very dominant person and she was direct and
she was a positive person. She was, what we called, the spirit
of love, and I say you learn to love if you have been loved and
I received, other than my home, the greatest love at Bethune-
Cookman College. Everybody acted as though we had to be
responsible for each other. We learned to love, the deep-
seated.:m.en:ing of love, and we expressed it in our daily conversa-
tion, our daily acts.
B: Was it really true? I've heard that whenever she entered the
room, with her stick, she demanded that the men stand to their
feet and give her the respect of a lady, that she was a very
refined la Was that really evident?
J: Yes. Whenever she would enter the auditorium, we would auto-
matically stand because we thought that was.due her--a woman
who had accomplished as much as she did, loved as much as she did,
served as much as she did. That was due her; that wasn't anything
that we had to do. She always taught us to stand tall, walk
erect, so that anybody looking at you would realize that you
were somebody and that you were going somewhere. She not
only taught us that but she practiced that. I've never seen
a woman who walked so proud and beautifully as Mrs. Bethune.
B: What did she get a degree in? Did she get a degree?
J: Mrs. Bethune never finished college. But she had many honorary
degrees. When she left Scotia Seminary, she went back to the
Moody Bible School, but she didn't need a degree. She was one
of the special people that God endows. She was the woman
of the century, and we've had no woman since Mrs. Bethune, of her
caliber, to reach the dimensions. You know she was once an
advisor to the president.
B: Right. Do you recall seeing anyone very famous that was there?
J: Oh, yes. The Negro diplomat, Ralph Bunche [1901-71], the first
diplomat to Israel. He was from Atlanta, Georgia. I saw all
the noteworthy people of color or black people. We saw
Carter G. Woodson, who started this Negro History Week. All
of the notables of the black race visited Bethune-Cookman.
B: What about George Washington Carver?
J: I never saw George Washington Carver, but I did see W.E.B.
DuBois. I saw the president of Moorehouse College, Howard
B: Oh, did you?
J: Yes, that was his home. He would make so many visits there.
And Martin Luther King. Elanor Roosevelt came to visit
Mrs. Bethune as her first visit to the South. That was quite
an auspicious occasion in Daytona.
B: My, you had a very rich conglomerate.
J: There was so many of them I can't name them, but any one of
an note always came there.
B: Did you ever see Margaret Walker? She was the millionaire
that was supposed to give a lot of money to that college.
She was into hairdressing.
J: I don't remember seeing her.
B: But you don't ever hear very much about Mrs. Bethune's family.
J: Most of her family was in South Carolina. She had only a few
nieces and nephews to come to the school, so we don't have
much of her other than the fact that she came from a large
B: Her husband?
J: I don't know anything about his background at all.
J: I don't know anything about anybody but Albert. Of course,
she had a grandson, Albert the second, and he's affiliated with
the school today.
B: So you had a very good, rich environment.
J: I had about the richest environment that one could think of
at Bethune-Cookman. I don't think it could have been richer.
I don't think I could have learned more. I think all the
positive direction for my life came from my home and the presence
of a mother and father into my life, and good people ingeneral
good teachers. And the influence of Bethune-Cookman gave me
my philosophy of life. Itgave me my base and I'm glad that I
has a positive direction. I'm glad that I wasn't taught to
hate people even to this day, even though I have been through
a lot of trying experiences. Because after all, we evolved
quite a bit, but up to this day,.we haven't reached the highest
potentials that blacks should have in this society. But I
didn't let that embitter me, because bitterness is something
like a disease. Whenever you get bitter, then you can't
accomplish for the fact that you have a great stumbling block
in your way.
B: Who directed you into music? Was that one of your counselors,
or did you do it yourself?
J: No, I had very good music teachers in my earlier days, those
whoknow music and could do it well. I had one of the notables
of our black race, and he came from Gainesville, Tujor DuBose.
J: Yes. He was one of the great musicians of the time, blacks, and he
was on a par with any. He had received very good training in
fine musical schools. He had headed the music department at
Talladega College in Alabama and also taught at Bethune-Cookman.
I believe he was also, at one time, at Tuskegee Institute.
He's from the DuBose family.
B: Oh, really?
J: Yes. A very fine looking man.
B: Now, was Bethune-Cookman a Freedman's School?
J: No, it wasn't, but Cookman Institute was. It was founded by
the Freedmen's Society because these were people who were
abolitionists that came down from the North after slavery and
established these schools in the Methodist Episcopal jurisdiction.
B: Now, was then when the state paid children to go to,school?
J: No, the state had no jurisdictionn over it all. We had no
affiliation with the state and it still does not. Church schools
are not affected by state support, any jurisdiction, what have
you. They are strictly under the jurisdiction of their denomina-
B: Mrs. Johnson, would you tell us a little bit about your
brothers and sisters?
J: Both of my brothers became ministers in the Methodist Episcopal
Church, and my oldest brother was very outstanding because
he pursured his work through seminary. He had four degrees
and made very good progress in the Methodist Episcopal church so
that he had reached the.position of district superintendent in
the Methodist Church, even in the conventional church. He
was the first black to be appointed district superintendent in
the Methodist Church in Florida, and that happened in 1970.
Now my sister was a teacher for many years, and my older brother
was a minister and a principal of a school for many years.
B: Really? So you all turned out to be very rich, young people.
J: We hoped we did, and I, of course, had taught for many years.
B: How many years did you teach?
J: Well, actually I taught forty years.
B: Forty years. All music?
J: Yes, practically. I started teaching in elementary. Teaching
in a classroom was a little bit too confining for me. I didn't like
that routine too much, and I saw that if I taught English that it
was going to be a routine thing. I could not stand that, so
I had a very rich background in music so I continued to
pursue my musical career and I developed that. As.a result
of it I became a liaison person with reference to music in a school.
B: Now how young were you when you started teaching?
J: Well, I don't think I want to disclose that to you. But I
started at a rather early...I started at the age of accounta-
bility. In other words, I started in the years when I should
know know what I was doing and I have gone through a long
period. I have been retired for twelve years.
B: Well, thank you today for this part of the interview. I look
forward to seeing you again to talk out the other part of your
life. I've enjoyed it immensely.
J: I'm glad you have.
B: Thank you.