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Retired educator reflects on 'good life'

February 03, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Former Washington County educator and Tuskegee Airman Bob Johnson credits education, hard work and tenacity with helping him overcome racial prejudice to live a full and happy life.

"It's been a good life. I've had a lot of firsts," said Johnson, 76, of Hagerstown. "I think the secret to dealing with (racism) is education and perseverance. You never submit or give in or quit."

The Pennsylvania native was the first black teacher and coach at North Hagerstown High School, transferring from the city's black school on North Street when Washington County schools integrated in 1956.

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The county Board of Education and local media made the transition easier by downplaying desegregation in an effort to avoid the racial strife that public school integration sparked in other areas, Johnson said.

"There was no hoopla," he said. "Schools just integrated."

And his work as junior varsity football coach gave Johnson the opportunity to forge positive relationships with members of North High's football team, cheerleading squad and marching band in the summer months before school started.

"I think being a coach really helped. It's a different camaraderie with athletes and coaches," said Johnson, a science teacher who also coached junior varsity basketball and varsity baseball at North High during his 18-year tenure there.

Johnson retired as assistant principal at E. Russell Hicks Middle School in Hagerstown in 1983. Five years later, he was the first black person inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame.

But there was a time when Johnson's teams at the all-black North Street School were barred from competing against the white teams in the county. And when his team traveled to games at schools in places like Cumberland, Md., Johnson had to call ahead to make special dining arrangements for him and his players, he said.

Officials in most of Washington County's white high schools finally allowed their basketball teams to compete against North Street in 1955, Johnson said.

But when his team beat the champion Hancock basketball squad, angry white spectators threw stones at the black team's bus, he said.

Johnson was already well-versed in the politics of race in America when he moved to Hagerstown in 1950.

He endured racial prejudice even while serving his country during World War II. At 17, he passed the entrance exam for the Tuskegee Airmen - the only black fighter pilots in the military - and enlisted in the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet.

Johnson remembered being ordered to move from his seat among white enlistees in a Pullman train car en route to the segregated basic training camp in Biloxi, Miss., and always staying on base because of the racial tension rampant in the southern town.

"Don't ever think that people were holier-than-thou above the Mason-Dixon line," he said. "It was just more in-your-face down there. I didn't leave the base."

Bigotry was also the norm in Alabama, where Johnson attended flight school at the Tuskegee Institute. Blacks had to be off the streets in the nearby town by 9 p.m., he said. Johnson's busy schedule at the flight training facility provided a distraction from the racism.

"You learn how to follow orders. Everything was done on the double," Johnson said. "I did a million push-ups."

A class officer at Tuskegee, Johnson had completed ground school, his primary flight training and most of his advanced flight training - which was led by black pilots from Tuskegee's famed 99th Fighter Squadron - when the war ended.

"I think of myself as a Tuskegee Airmen second-generation because I didn't graduate into the elite group," he said. "Had the war gone on for two or three more weeks, I would have done it. Nobody wants the war to go on, but I really wanted to go overseas to fly."

Johnson chose to leave the military to pursue a college education at Morgan State University in Baltimore rather than earn his pilot's license and re-enlist for three years, he said.

"Tuskegee was a turning point in my life," he said. "I realized that I needed an education to get anywhere. At that time, there was no future for a black with a pilot's license so I took the education and I've never regretted it."

Surrounded by their four children and eight of their 11 grandchildren, Johnson and his wife, Tish, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2002.

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