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Memorial Recreation Center to be renamed in honor of Robert W. Johnson

June 09, 2013|By HOLLY SHOK | holly.shok@herald-mail.com
  • Nakiya Ford, standing at rear, 7, helps Honesty Mitchell, seated, 8, play the computer game Animal Shelter in the computer lab area of the Memorial Recreation Center in Hagerstown. The center's name will change to Robert W. Johnson Community Center this month.
Joe Crocetta /

Four years after the death of a Hagerstown man memorialized for his roles as an educator, coach and Tuskegee airman, Memorial Recreation Center this month will be renamed the Robert W. Johnson Community Center in his honor.

“As far as I’m concerned, he was the cream of the crop — but I guess I’m a little partial,” Patricia “Tish” Johnson said of her late husband.
 
Johnson, who died June 17, 2009, served in the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet in the United States during the waning days of World War II.

He later taught science and coached basketball at the all-black North Street School, which is now the recreation center that will bear his name.

He also taught at Hagerstown High School, his wife said, then at North Hagerstown High School, where he was the first black teacher and coach when Washington County schools integrated in 1956.

Johnson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education at Morgan State College in Baltimore.

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By taking graduate courses at Frostburg State University, Western Maryland University and the University of Maryland, Johnson received his master’s equivalency degree in 1974.

Johnson retired as assistant principal at Hagerstown’s E. Russell Hicks Middle School in 1983.

Five years after his retirement, Johnson became the first black person inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame.

“It’s been a good life. I’ve had a lot of firsts,” Johnson, then 76, said in a 2003 interview with The Herald-Mail. “I think the secret to dealing with (racism) is education and perseverance. You never submit or give in or quit.”

The rededication comes on the heels of the decision of center officials to incorporate the word “community” in the title, Executive Director Karen Cook said. Public input on a new name was sought over a 60-day period.

“It just only made sense,” Cook said of adding the word “community.”

“It just signifies what this building has been standing for — the unity of people. Bringing together people, bringing together families, each one helping one, each one teaching one, each one being available for another,” she said. 

Recreation center officials expected the popular choice would be to add the word “community” to the center’s current title, making it Memorial Recreation Community Center.

But a petition signed by more than 300 people calling for the facility to be named for Johnson sealed the deal, Cook said.
 
“I’m not bragging, but I’m very proud of my husband. He was quite a person in all respects,” Tish Johnson said.

Built in 1888, the center first served as the all-black North Street School before becoming the YMCA, for use by the black community, in 1947.

In 1968, the building became Memorial Recreation Center.

“It’s just one of those things that no one ever wants to let go,” Cook said, noting that the center, through all of its purposes, has served as a “hub” for the black community, particularly in the six- to eight-block radius surrounding the Jonathan Street corridor.

“This neighborhood has the reputation of being the rough spot, the projects, the drug strip — shootings, killings, stabbings,” Cook said. “In the past I’d say 10 years ... I can tell that the neighborhood has changed. You don’t see the drug dealing, you don’t see as much of the fighting ... but of course then you have the random acts that pop up. And we also have low-income families in this neighborhood that live in the public housing.”

The center hosted inspirational speaker William Kellibrew at its after-school program in February following an incident in which a teenage girl was stabbed in the chest at a residence near the center.

“What we are trying to do is get away from the stigma that this is as far as it goes,” Cook said. “We want to show the community that you can go further. There are resources out there to help you, there are avenues out there to help you, there are people out there to help you — and it doesn’t stop here.”

If you go

What: Memorial Recreation Center rededication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Robert W. Johnson Community Center.

When: Saturday, June 15, 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: Memorial Recreation Center, 109 W. North Ave., Hagerstown

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