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Black History Month: Olive Johnson

Olive Johnson at SAU

Black History Month is an opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of African-Americans in our nation. This February, Spring Arbor University will take this opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of many prominent African-Americans in history, specifically four of our own African-American alumni, as part of the month-long celebration.

In 1920, Olive Johnson, a bright, ambitious young woman from Brantford, Ontario, arrived at Spring Arbor Seminary with $50 in her pocket and faith and courage in her heart. Johnson is long considered to be Spring Arbor’s first black student.

Having been raised in a Christian home, and having attended a Free Methodist church, Johnson decided to complete her high school education at Spring Arbor. She had dropped out of school at 14 to help support her family, but with their blessing, she decided it was time to return to school to earn her diploma at age 19.

Johnson’s father had encouraged his children to be overcomers, despite the disadvantages and discrimination that the black community often met with in those days. He had tried to instill a great sense of pride and hope in his children by teaching them about his three heroes: Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Among those, he revered Washington the most. She recalled carrying her father’s words with her to school: “If Booker T. Washington could overcome poverty, ostracism and ridicule and achieve so much, so can you. Remember, so can you,” Johnson said, recalling her father’s words, in an article from the June 5, 1983, issue of Evangel magazine.

Armed with his challenge to make something of herself, Johnson decided she would answer that call. Johnson knew it would take a lot of hard work for her to not only succeed in her studies, but to also afford to remain at the seminary. To earn money, Johnson first worked in the school laundry, and later in one of the teacher’s homes. It was not easy for Johnson, but she persevered – determined to go the distance.

Even though Spring Arbor Seminary embraced the spirit of equality by making its Christian educational experience accessible to all, Johnson’s experience of being the only black student at Spring Arbor did not come without adversity. But she rose above the turmoil and overcame stereotypes and discrimination to become a well-respected and beloved student at Spring Arbor Seminary.

She would later live in the Detroit area and, despite early difficulties finding a job because of her race; she eventually secured a job as a teacher for the Inkster School District and later as a school social worker in 1948. She had gained much of her social work experience during her work at the Jackson Y.W.C.A. as the first Negro Girl Reserve Advisor. Since graduating from high school in 1924, Johnson had gone on to distinguish herself as a professional and an activist – inspiring countless people, especially those of her race.

In 1971, Johnson was honored by Spring Arbor as the Alumna of the Year. At the time, her niece, Marilyn (Johnson ’66) Hayes had this to say, “You were always a source of inspiration to me; a person to whom I could turn for both spiritual guidance and for encouragement to make the most of my life.”

Olive Johnson passed away in Brantford, Ontario, on May 21, 1982.