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At the Elders' Feet: Conversations Across the Generations

Diversity for Equity Grant through Fairmont State University

Students Today - Students Yesterday

I think things circle around. Let me put it that way. Things circle around. I looked at the protests recently. And I looked at the faces of the young people there and everything. And they were so sincere. Yes. You know, and it was the same thing. I mean, I can remember when we went to Marshall, and we protested in front of White Pantry. We protested in front of the theaters downtown because we couldn't go. And we had professors who assigned this … one professor assigned us to go see Spartacus because we were studying Greek culture, and we couldn't go to the theaters. You know, they weren't open to us. So, that's one; that kind of sparked the beginning of the protests there - for opening up the theaters, and the stores because if you're going to be in the schools, and the schools are going to have some students be able to go [then the rules have to change].

The things did change. Okay, but every one of those places we protested against opened up - every single one of them. I mean, they're all open today and people, you know, what people were worried about... "If we open them up [to black customers], we're going to lose our business. People aren’t going to come." And that was a lot of the talk. It didn't happen. And you know what? Every one of those restaurants was still full every week. So, I mean, I think it's that people are afraid of things, sometimes fearful, but there is no reason [to have such fears].


  Was there another time that you felt that kind of walls crushing in down on       you? What was crushing down? What was it that made you feel small?

 Dolores [00:21:29] Oh, yes, I can. Well, at Douglass, I went to Douglass. I   went through Barnett through sixth grade, and then Douglass was seventh   through 12th. And of course, sometime between the six and eighth grade, the Supreme Court passed the integration law. And so, people began to leave   Douglass to go to other schools. Mostly, they were boys who were going to play sports. And as a matter of fact, there were three or four [boys]. Okay, but these were all older guys because I was just in the seventh or eighth grade at the time. And by the time I got in the 10th grade, they wanted to send some students to Huntington High [all white high school]. And Huntington High was the huge, you know, the big white school in the southeastern part of Huntington. And so, there were several of us. And I don't think they asked us. They talked to our parents, and our parents made the decision. So, I can remember there were four of us girls that went and a bunch of boys that went to the Huntington High. They said, "You're moving." Well, I see a bunch of maybe 10 of us altogether. There had already been three or four guys that were there to play ball. So, when I went to Huntington, it was a big, big change. Number one, I was so much a part of Douglass. I was a cheerleader. I was in the band, the stage band, you know, took part in everything and enjoyed it and loved it. And I get to Huntington, and you don't do anything. No. There were three or four hundred kids at Douglass. At Huntington High there were twelve hundred. There were sixty some teachers there. And you got the feeling that someone said to the children before they left home, “You be nice, but don't get too close.”


And so, people were standoffishly nice. They would smile and say hello, and that was it, you know. We were not part of anything. We weren't - well, number one - with twelve hundred kids … and there was a hierarchy there at the school because they were kids from different parts of the city, and the kids from the west end weren't part of anything either. The kids would go out for cheerleader or majorette and something. And there were only, what, eight majorettes? And there were only like 10 or 12 cheerleaders. That's all girls did. I mean, that's all girls did. The band was an all-boys band. And, you know, I had been in the band. I played the clarinet in the band. So, all of a sudden, I was in the situation where there was nothing to do, nothing to be, nothing to be part of, and feeling very isolated and alone and didn't have a class with any of my friends, any of my ten friends. We never had any classes together. So, you were always in a class, and you were the only one, the only black person in the class. And you felt so alone, you know. You felt really alone. That was hard. It was very hard. But it was, in another way, it was very good.

 I learned when I graduated -  I went to Huntington High in 1957 and graduated to 59 - and when I went to Marshall to school, a lot of the students at Douglass who came to Marshall to go to school were going through what I had gone through at Huntington High at Marshall.  I'd already been through it, the [adjustment was] over. It wasn't cultural shock [for me] anymore. That's what it was. It [ moving from a safe segregated environment to a cold and harsh integrated school setting] was more cultural shock than anything. And once you got through that, it was okay.

When I interviewed Bill Drennen and Kojo, and they lived in Charleston, and they grew up in the same area. They [the school administration] decided in Charleston, that they were going to integrate one school class at a time, first grade, second grade, third grade. Well, first grade went so well, they decided to just integrate all of them at one time. That was a mistake; it was horrible for those kids. Kojo talks about the fact that he left Garnett High School; it was so hard. And that there was nothing there that represented anything that he could remember or know or had any relationship to. He said, "I went to the library. There was one book in the library about Blacks. Nothing, nothing." And he talks about being on the football team, but they didn't want to play them, the boys, because they, you know, they wanted the other kids [the white players] to be the stars. So, they [the black football players] sat on the bench a lot. I mean, he was very unhappy.


Sometimes what we experience in the outside world affects us on the inside, our health and ability to fight off the micro and macro aggressions. The hurt and pain can translate into our bodies and become medical conditions, chronic manifestations of being tossed around by the world, taking the hits (as an actor would say) and rebounding in some way that shows the wounds if we know what we are looking for. In this case, Dolores literally felt that kind of change in her own body in the eleventh grade.

 It was a…it was a very hard experience. Those first years at least [of integrating the high school at Huntington High]. Things changed. But it was hard at first and nobody knew what they were doing, [with integration] really. We were integrated into the white schools. And I can remember the principal there was a woman, and she said, "We're just doing the best we can." But they had no idea what was really needed. So, that was a really hard time too, Ilene. And you just get through it. I started wearing glasses, and I always said that I wore glasses because I hated what I was seeing there.

Ilene [00:28:36] Really?

Dolores [00:28:37] Yes. All of a sudden, I just couldn't see.

Ilene [00:28:44] When you went to Huntington High?

Dolores [00:28:46] Yeah.

Ilene [00:28:47] So you really literally, had an eye test and one day you could see… and the next day you couldn't?

Dolores [00:29:00].  Yes, I had never needed glasses. I had eye checks before, never had any problem, so all of a sudden, I had a problem.

Ilene [00:29:13] Wow.

Dolores [00:29:14] Eleventh grade.

[When I graduated from Huntington High School] I was supposed to go to Spelman in Atlanta. That had always been the plan because I'm from Georgia. I have family all over Georgia. And, you know, it was always said that I was going to go to Spelman College there. But integration changed that plan right quick. In addition to the fact that my father was on strike for the year prior to my going to college and, you know, and all that. And so, it was decided that, well, we'll just keep on with this integration thing, and you'll go to Marshall, and so that's where I went, dear old Marshall.


Dolores [00:16:17] One of the first things that happened at Marshall... Marshall…being at Marshall was a very exciting thing because it was during this time of protests and all kinds of things happening on campus and in the world. Overall, there was the Vietnam War going on. There was the women's protest going on. There was African American civil rights protests going on. There were environmental [protests]. It all started about in the 1960s. And it had started before that, but it started flat out in 1960.

Dolores [00:16:57] And one of the first things that happened when I got there was that a social studies professor assigned the class to go see the movie Spartacus. And of course, none of the black kids could go because the movie theaters were segregated.  So, and I have a picture… Phil Carter, who was from right outside Clarksburg. He had been recruited [to Marshall University] as a basketball player. But Phil was very, very socially conscious, and he decided that we needed to start a group. So, we started a group called SIP. And I tell you, I cannot think of the name, what that stood for… something the students… something progress - progressives. But I don't remember what the I was for. But we protested and marched, and we went and carried signs and did all kinds of stuff.

One of the people that I mentioned was Bunchy Gray. Bunchy was the kind of person who’s always going to be someone who supports a group. Bunchy supported a lot of those kids who were from out of town, different places, and she would take them in. She made [like her] sons. She came over and talked to the president and told him that he ought to be involved in this too. I mean, she was a real go getter, and she worked with the students in that SIP program over the years that they were active, which were probably the whole time I was at Marshall, the whole four years that I was at Marshall. She was a supporting force for the students, one of the supporting forces in the community. And of course, there was Herb Henderson who got people out of jail because there were kids who went to jail quickly. I can remember we were protesting in front of a little...a little store that was just a little chute [a shortcut] between two or three other stores called White Pantry. Well, the name was offensive, right? Which was why we were protesting.

And my girlfriend and two other people went inside to “sit in”, and the owner locked the door. And then the police came and took them [the kids doing the sit in] to jail. And but good ole Herb Henderson, who was very involved with the NAACP at that time and who was one of two lawyers in Huntington at the time, two black lawyers in that meeting at the time, he was able to get them out very quickly. So, it was easy [to be involved in the protests].

I think they brought in about four or five hundred black students at one time. And that's when things got a little hot because kids were picking up on things that were [unjust and discriminatory]. There was a fraternity there that had an “old South weekend” and drew the Mason-Dixon line across the campus. And you couldn't cross it and, you know, that kind of stuff. And it caused all kinds of fights and arguments and stuff like that. And of course, there was the thing that students couldn't go to some of the businesses and things in the community. Nor were they hiring [black] students to work part-time in the business establishments and stuff. So, these were things that [black and some white] students were very upset about, you know, and protested about all the time. [We] marched around the campus at the drop of a hat. [Black leaders] brought in speakers, you know, different speakers all the time.

And so, it was a lot of unrest at that time. And not only were these [protests] just the black students, these were [protests with] black students and sympathetic white students who marched together against these things. I graduated in January ‘64, but I finished my student teaching at the end of 63, but the only thing that was in the yearbook that year that showed any black students were number one: the athletes. And number two: this one fraternity that had started in the four years that I was there.

Now, I think a year or so after that, the AKA's [Alpha Kappa Alpha], which is a women's sorority group, started and it's the sister group to the Kappa Alpha Psi. And then, there were the Omegas and a couple of other fraternities and sororities that began. But it was over a period of almost 10 years before we had sororities and fraternities that were black on campus. And this was probably the first group.

Dolores Johnson Biography

By Ilene Evans

The hands of Dolores Johnson are the hands of an artist.

Dolores’ response to difficult times has so often turned to her own creativity. She had the ability to write, journal, sew, and create beauty when the things around her were soul crushing and painful. The feeling of love is not enough. Love needs a voice, a face, something tangible. Love needs expression. This is something that I have learned from my times with her. Love wraps itself in beauty, and we are able to absorb, digest, and metabolize the power of that love as we engage with love’s expressions. The expression can be a poem, a painting, a quilt, or a card. And those things build our inner strength.

               Dolores is an avid reader with an insatiable curiosity, Dolores is a stellar conversationalist, teacher, leader, and community organizer. Now, she is a published author who has used the combination of her experience in segregation growing up in the Huntington area to illuminate her research for her Ph.D. on the media and the intentional skewing of the press against a positive image of African American life. That same experience underpinned her documentation of white and black relations in her book. She wrote the story of two outstanding successful men coming from the same school and neighborhood. One was Black; the other white, and though they used the same terms in language they meant very different things as they described their experiences colored by their race.

Dolores’ resilience is evident in her artwork, her activism, her love of people and how telling our stories makes us strong.

Dr. Johnson had a fascination with language which led her to pursue a BA degree in French and Spanish from Marshall University with dreams of being a UN Interpreter. However, love and marriage to James W. Johnson revised those dreams. Three beloved children resulted from this union. Her teaching career began in 1964 at Oley Jr. High School. Between 1966 and 1968, she served as teacher at the Huntington, WV Job Corp Center. After the birth of her second child, she worked for the Department of Social Welfare as a social worker, but returned to her alma mater, Huntington High in 1970, and taught English there for the next 20 years. During this period, she had her third child and completed an MA Degree in English from Marshall University.

Nineteen eighty-nine began a new venture in higher education for Dr. Johnson, when she moved to the English department of Marshall University. While teaching at Marshall she entered a doctoral program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She completed the program with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and linguistics. Professor Johnson was appointed Director of Writing in the English Department at Marshall and directed the National Writing Project for Cabell and Logan Counties until her retirement in 2006.

Nothing is Lost slide presentation by Dolores Johnson

"I Am Elder" by Dolores Johnson

Student Artwork

By Joel Dugan

By Ryan Richards

By Brennah Staunton

Dolores Johnson

Johnson lived a life of adventure with an open mind. Her visual focuses on items that represent the activities she participated in - things such as the croissants on top of the France flag indicate she was once in the French club at school and the Marshall University mug tells where she went to college. Johnson is also a woman of elegance which can be symbolized by pearls and has wedding rings to show her marriage.





Dolores' sweet sister, Carolyn Thomas

by Megan McMillan

At Home with Dolores Photo gallery

"Nothing is Lost" from Traditions Magazine

             Nothing is Lost: A Conversation with Dr. Dolores Johnson

  Dr. Dolores Johnson organized her conversation for At the Elders’ Feet around the theme, “Nothing is Lost”.  Dr. Johnson began her conversation with her Southern roots. A retired professor of English, Dr. Johnson’s poetic words rang true to her training.

  I am Georgia’s red clay.

  And Country folk in long skirts—

  Fried chicken breakfasts with hot hominy grits and buttered biscuits—

  I am smothered summer squash and collard greens and sweet potato pies…

 Through her early life, Dr. Johnson lived in what she called “a sweet chocolate world unrelated to the larger world surrounding us.” She said, “Our history was woven in the names of organizations, churches, social and fraternal groups that saturated our small community.”

I am family gatherings where southern accented voices said FO for four and poke for bag and called each other Cuzin Saaarah, or Maaaree or Brotha Cavin, or Mz Dora Dean.  Slow talking folk who gave you time to read between the lines.

Dolores came to West Virginia as a young girl where she “discovered the ring of the twang and nasal vowels of Appalachian speech.”  Her love of language led her to teach high school English, and later earn a Ph.D. in rhetoric and linguistics. 

Dolores went to Barnett Elementary School and spent her first two years of high school at Douglass High School, named for abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, where her strict teachers “encouraged us to be somebody”. But that changed when Dolores was one of a handful of students who was transferred from Douglas to the larger, all-white Huntington High.

Dolores, who had played the clarinet since 5th grade, was in the band at Douglass, but at Huntington High, the band was only for boys. She remembered girls could be cheerleaders or majorettes, but there were very few of those positions, and they were highly sought after. (Dolores said it would be 8 or 9 years before the Huntington High Band would have a black majorette.) “So, I was leaving the band. I was leaving proms and parties. I was leaving teachers and friends I loved.”

Dolores did make a few friends at Huntington High, but they were “school friends." She said, “We would see each other at school. And it was kind of awkward. We were ill at ease with each other. Nobody knew what to do. Even the principal, a woman at that time, said, ‘We don't know.’ This is just new ground for everybody. So, nobody had any pre-training on how to work with students, or how to make people feel more at ease, or how to work with their own students in helping them to cross the barrier of race in those classrooms at that time.”

After high school, Dolores had planned to go to Spelman College in Atlanta, but her father was on strike most of her senior year. She remembered, “That could have put me on another track totally. I would not have gone to college, except my mother was not too proud to ask the people she worked for as a maid to pay that tuition, and they did. They felt that I should go to school.” So, Dolores stayed close to home and went to Marshall University. “Being at Marshall was a very exciting thing because it was during this time of protests and all kinds of things happening on campus in and in the world. The Vietnam War was going on. There was the women's protest going on. There was African American civil rights protests going on. This was 1960.” Still, Huntington was a segregated city. “And one of the first things that happened when I got there (to Marshall) was that a social studies professor assigned the class to go see the movie Spartacus. And of course, none of the black kids could go because the movie theaters were segregated.”

Many years later, Dolores was a teacher at the very high school where she felt so alone. During those challenging years, she had kept journals and had found comfort and courage in writing. While teaching at Huntington High School, she became involved in the National Writing Project with two professors from Marshall University. Later, Dr. Johnson was offered a tenure-track position at Marshall University. She taught there for 18 years.

I am Mae V. Brown and her Child Development and Improvement Club, (CDIC), that introduced a generation of black youth to art instruction, music, dance, and the discipline of the arts at experiential levels far beyond the classroom. It brought acclaim and respect of parents, friends, and our community as each spring we presented our recitals and art shows to the community. My mother was one of the major seamstresses for the costumes for those annual shows.

In her retirement, Dr. Johnson has moved from using words to using fabric to tell stories. Dolores’ mothing made all of her clothes. As an adult, she could never find anything that fit quite right. Her memories of her mother bent over a sewing machine prompted Dolores to learn to sew. She took to sewing as she had taken to language. She sought out instruction in quilting, taking courses from experts in the field. She now brings her wealth of knowledge and experience and her many stories to her work as she pieces together bits of fabric to create beautiful traditional and portraiture quilts.

Repeatedly in her conversation with students, Dr. Johnson pointed out that “nothing is lost.” Her experiences, good and bad, like a quilt, make her who she is.

Extended Biography of Dolores Johnson

Dolores Johnson's Extended Biography

Her fascination with language led her to pursue a BA degree in French and Spanish from Marshall University with dreams of being a UN Interpreter. However, love for and marriage to James W. Johnson revised those dreams. Three beloved children resulted from this union. Her teaching career began in 1964 at Oley Jr. High School. Between 1966 and 1968, she served as teacher at the Huntington, WV Job Corp Center. After the birth of her second child, she worked for the Department of Social Welfare as a social worker, but returned to her alma mater, Huntington High in 1970, and taught English there for the next 20 years. During this period, she had her third child and completed an M.A. Degree in English from Marshall University.

Nineteen eighty-nine began a new venture in higher education for Dr. Johnson, when she moved to the English department of Marshall University. While teaching at Marshall she entered a doctoral program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She completed the program with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and linguistics. Professor Johnson was appointed Director of Writing in the English Department at Marshall and directed the National Writing Project for Cabell and Logan Counties until her retirement in 2006.

Aside from her academic achievements, Dr. Johnson's political awareness grew through personal experiences as a young adult during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. She participated in marches and protested against segregated institutions and systems in Huntington. She joined the NAACP and became active as a youth leader and later served as President of the Huntington Branch for 10 years. With Mrs. Carolyn Brown, she coordinated the WV NAACP Branch of ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics). Several national winners resulted from this program.

Dr. Johnson's interests in teaching, language studies, and politics resulted in her volunteering and working in professional associations from the beginning of her career until today. These organizations and associations include (1) serving as Vice president of the WVEA ; (2) co-founding with Mrs. Loretta Hagler and Mrs. Emma Barnett, the Huntington Chapter of Black Professional and Business Women, and (3) editing the book, "Red, White, Black and Blue" by William M. Drennen, Jr. and Kojo (William T. ) Jones, Jr. Currently, she chairs the Douglass Foundation, Inc., which provided over $17,000 in scholarships to African American descendants of Douglass and Huntington High School graduates at the recent DHS-HHS Alumni Reunion. As a believer in the value of art education, she volunteers as a Docent at the Huntington Museum of Art and serves on the Huntington Museum of Art Board of Directors.

Two trips to Africa, a tour of several European countries, a trip to Spain for the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage walk, several visits to the Caribbean islands and cross-country trips in the US attest to Dr. Johnson’s love of travel. Other personal fascinations surround her love of quilting. She and Mrs. Sandra Clemons established St. Peter Claver Piecemakers Quilt Group which meets weekly, where she is an active member. More recently she and some friends started the Innovative Fabric Arts Network to stretch their skills in more artistic quilting styles.  Religious spirituality has been a lifelong path of learning and study for her.  And she loves reading (she will read almost anything except horror stories), and writing, and journaling. She has boxes of journals beginning from the time she met her first love at 16. 

Interesting details…

Personal Motto and Favorite scripture:   All things work for good for them that love...

Favorite Musician: Bob Dylan. I love the blues though.  I think I fell in love with Dylan because he came on the scene, singing folk and playing a blues guitar—and of course, he’s a poet too.  But I could listen to BB King and old blues singers all day.

Slogan or proverb to live by:  In my search for a personal spiritual path, I discovered A Course in Miracles.  One of the many wisdom words I learned from studying the course was “Teach only love, for that is what you are.” And another was the blessing, “I bless you my brother with the Love of Christ which I would share with you, for there is only God’s Love, our love and everyone’s love forever.”

National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, Inc.  My best friends, Emma Barnett, Loretta Hagler and I organized a group of young professional and businesswomen in the 70’s and affiliated with the NANBPW, Inc. within a year or so afterwards. Through this organization, we traveled and met women who were amazing inspirations, and we learned a lot too.

Becoming Catholic: There was a Catholic church in our neighborhood, and I was drawn to it early in my life. My parents were Baptist, and we lived next door to a Holiness church, but it was something about the serenity of the old Roman mass with its rituals and universality that drew to Catholicism.  I still write. “Catholic” when asked what my religion is, however, I’m not so sure that’s what I still practice.

In the evening of life,
we will be judged on love alone.


Timeline - The Living History of Our Elders

Dolores Johnson Timeline

December 25, 1941: Birth in Athens, GA I was born in the home of my paternal Great Grandmother’s home.

1942 Parents: Calvin Thomas and Gladys Mae Thomas moved to Cincinnati, Ohio area. 

And sometime between 1942 and 1943, they moved to Huntington, WV.

1943: Carolyn Thomas, my sister, was born in Huntington, November 6, 1943. 

Daddy enlisted in the US Army in 1944 and served until June 24, 1946.

1946: I entered first grade at Barnett Elementary. (I’d attended Barnett Childcare Program which was housed at the school for a year or two before entering first grade.)

1952: Observed first presidential inauguration of Eisenhower on television at Barnett. 

1953: Entered 7th grade at Douglass High School.

1954: Supreme Court Decision integrating schools. I was in the 8th grade.

1956: Met James William Johnson---future husband

1957: Left DHS and enrolled in Huntington High School. 

1959: Graduated from HHS; took instructions in Catholicism and joined St. Peter Claver Church.

 à1959-60: Freshman year at Marshall College. Candidate John Kennedy spoke on Marshall’s campus while campaigning in 1960. Marshall became university in 1961. 

1960: William Johnson, discharged from USAF, returned to Huntington and remained for about 6 months, then went to California for a year. Returned again mid ’61. 

1963: June 15, we married. And in the fall of ’63, I completed student teaching and graduated in May 1964.

1965: January 1965 hired as teacher of Spanish and English at Oley Junior HS. Rule in Cabell Co: a teacher had to sit out after pregnancy until child was a year old. 

September 3, 1965: My son Byron was born. Allergic to everything. 

January 1966: I took a job at the new Huntington Job Corp Center as a social studies teacher.

1967: I was rehired by Cabell County School System as teacher of French and English at HHS.

1968: August 3, my daughter, Adrianne Lynn was born. I sat out almost the entire year at home with her.

1969: Decided in June to take a job with WV Department of Welfare in Child Welfare Department. (Qualified as social worker because of courses in social science and psychology) NOTHING IS LOST.

1970: I had a miscarriage. I transferred out of Dept. of Welfare to Department of Employment Security, still deeply depressed. 

1971: Returned to HHS as teacher of English and Black History. 

1978:  Oct. 13, my son, Christopher was born

Publications by Dolores Johnson


Red, White, Black, and Blue: A Dual Memoir of Race and Class in Appalachia
(Series in Race, Ethnicity, and Gender in Appalachia)

, and  (Editor),  (Contributor),  (Contributor)

Red, White, Black, and Blue began as a collaborative memoir by William M. “Bill” Drennen, a European American, and Kojo (William T.) Jones, an African American. These Appalachian men grew up in the South Hills section of Charleston, West Virginia. As boys they played on the same Little League baseball team and experienced just one year together as schoolmates after the all-white Thomas Jefferson Junior High School was desegregated in 1955. After that, class, race, and choice separated their life experiences for forty-five years.

In 1992 both had returned to Charleston from lives mostly lived elsewhere. They decided to work together on a memoir of growing up through the trauma of desegregation. Their aim was to foster understanding between their distinct cultures for themselves and for their own and future generations. Dolores Johnson, in editing the two texts, observed two very different modes of expression: Bill Drennen's narrative is threaded with references that connote wealth, status, and personal privilege; Kojo Jones's memoir is interwoven with African American signification, protest, and moral outrage.

The stories of their Appalachian upbringing in homes less than a mile apart are anecdotal in nature, but their diverse uses of the English language as they endeavor to communicate shared memories and common meanings reveal significant cultural connotations that transform standard American English into two different languages, rendering interracial communication problematic. Dr. Johnson's analysis is to the point.

Red, White, Black, and Blue is a groundbreaking approach to studying not only cultural linguistics but also the cultural heritage of a historic time and place in America. It gives witness to the issues of race and class inherent in the way we write, speak, and think.