Pauline Byrd Johnson
First African American Teacher in KPS
Pauline Byrd Johnson was many things: an outspoken critic of forced desegregation policies, an active member of the Kalamazoo Republican Party, a tireless advocate for the value of education, and a spirited, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps backer who often butted heads with the community’s more liberal-minded civil rights activists, but she will indelibly be known as the first black teacher in the Kalamazoo Public Schools District.
The Early Years
Before breaking the color barrier of the Kalamazoo Public Schools in 1945, Johnson was born at Bronson Hospital in 1904. Growing up in Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood, the great-granddaughter of enslaved ancestors, Johnson experienced both the everyday distress of racial prejudice, and the occasional, neighborly kindness, as when Homer Brundage supported her grandfather’s purchasing of land in the mostly white neighborhood against the protests of others. But after her brother passed away at an early age, Pauline found it difficult to develop friendships with the white children in her neighborhood, often suffering hurtful indignities from fellow students and teachers who judged her to be inferior. Johnson details the many forms and expressions of unjust treatment she faced as a young adult, growing up in Kalamazoo. She was emotionally bullied, physically harassed, and always made to feel like her educational aspirations were too lofty for someone of her racial background. In the 1920’s, African Americans only accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall population in Kalamazoo, and as Johnson stated in her memoirs, it was difficult being the only black student.
“Some wouldn’t take hold of my hand if we played a game in a circle because they thought I was dirty. Usually I wasn’t chosen for things, although I was a very good player. Very active and so on. But I usually was not chosen until last. And I was very ambitious–we had spell-downs and as a rule I was one of the last ones up. But the teacher would choose captains to choose sides and always I was the last chosen. I was a good speller but they didn’t want me. And for a little child I can’t tell you how hurtful those things are. And then I would talk about it at home and my family would always give me encouragement and tell me to try again. If I would be better, well, people would have to be nice to me. That was hard to believe when you’re little.”
Pauline Byrd, 1926 Kalamazoo College Yearbook, Senior Class
Johnson attended Vine Elementary School before graduating in 1922 from Kalamazoo Central High School. She continued to blaze a trail of undaunted achievements by becoming the first black graduate of Kalamazoo College in 1926. She cited her great-grandmother Bradley and her Grandpa Hill as her biggest influences, emphasizing their strength of character and determined work ethic. It was her great-grandmother, a woman who had experienced the horrors of slavery, that shaped young Pauline’s outlook. “I always remember that she never talked to me without emphasizing the importance of an education. I must learn. The only salvation for Negroes in America was education, was learning, and if I learned things nothing could make me a slave. Nothing could ever be taken from me if I put it into my mind.”
During her high school years, she lived with her mother Edith at 208 Millview Street in the Westnedge Hill Neighborhood. She spoke glowingly about life outside of school, including her time spent at the recently established
Fredrick Douglass Community Center, a local community meeting place for black soldiers that her grandfather had helped to found. Her mother was a hairdresser whose thrifty budgeting strategies contributed to a savings fund that would allow Pauline to attend college.
Ever gracious, ever true–saying from senior yearbook The First ‘First’
Photograph from “Emancipated Spirits: Portraits of Kalamazoo College Women”
Johnson’s admission to Kalamazoo College in the fall of 1922 came with both the anxiety from the extraordinary expectations she placed on herself to succeed, as well as the commonplace racism that was as present at Kalamazoo College as it was during her high school years. Kalamazoo College was also not her first choice, but rather her mother’s uncompromising opinion that she attend the integrated, northern college rather than an all-black university in the south. Johnson’s desire to attend Howard University didn’t come to pass, but after successfully interviewing with then president Dr. Stetson, Johnson was officially admitted. Embracing the challenge of college academics over the next four years, she developed an interest in the study of History, English and French. While her classmates continued to shun and exclude Johnson from fully participating in college life, she did manage to work on the publications
Boiling Pot and the Index. She also joined a women’s literary society. Despite her academic success, Johnson found this period of her life increasingly isolating, stating, “The gap between me and my own race also began to grow. It was considered out of place and silly and stupid to go on in school. And if you’re not willing to be a lone wolf, you better go along with people. So I studied every night–there were no social things at the College for me. Once in a while there would be a dance or something at the Methodist church or the Douglass Community Center, and I would go to those. But my life was very limited and very narrow socially.” In 1926, Pauline appeared at her graduation ceremonies with her proud family in attendance, having earned her teacher certification.
After college, Pauline bounced around a bit, taking work in Chicago and then in Columbus, Ohio before returning to Kalamazoo to take classes at Western Michigan University. After a year of teaching at a rural, all-black elementary school in Cass County, Michigan, where she honed her skills as an educator, Pauline had the opportunity to work at a school near Louisville, Kentucky called Lincoln Ridge Junior College. One of her students was the young Whitney Young, Jr., who would later become a leading civil rights activist and head of the National Urban League. Johnson recalled, “He was a terrific, talented, wonderful, brilliant little boy, and I gave him a lot of my time. And I’ve always been proud that he gave me the credit for his being what he was.” After accepting that the many social restrictions of the Jim Crow south were not to her liking, Johnson once again headed north to Kalamazoo, where she married Chester Taylor and had a daughter (Joanne) in 1933. The roles of mother and wife were not easy for Pauline to reconcile, as these didn’t come natural to her. Much of her identity was wrapped up in her career goals as an educator. Domestic life, which was denying her the opportunities that she worked so hard to achieve, ultimately led her to end the marriage with Chester.
After spending the late 1930’s and early 1940’s teaching in Gary, Indiana, Pauline once again set her sights on moving back to Kalamazoo, ready and prepared for her second, big ‘first’.
Integrating KPS Faculty
While still working in Gary, Indiana, Pauline attended a conference at Western Michigan University that was hosted by Kalamazoo Public Schools. After participating in the discussion, she was approached by Clara May Graybill, a supervisor in the Kalamazoo school system, who encouraged Pauline to apply for a position in KPS. Graybill’s pitch included the mentioning of a recently drafted board resolution that stated that applicants would not be refused based on race. The superintendent at the time, Loy Norrix, was also supportive of changing the school system’s longstanding policy of racial discrimination. After being hired, Johnson heard that there were still a number of board members who when they found out that a black woman had been hired to teach, were unhappy. Despite the resistance to change, Johnson became the first black teacher in the school system. The closeness to family was certainly one of the primary reasons for Johnson to move back to Kalamazoo, but her interest in advancing better relations between the black and white communities also fueled her motivation.
“I thought it was important to come to Kalamazoo because of the race situation. I’ve always been concerned with and interested in the races working together peacefully and with understanding and respect. The way Miss Graybill presented it to me, that Kalamazoo was trying to work toward improving race relations, toward integration, it seemed to me that it was something that I needed to do and should do. That’s why I gave in against my own desire to stay in Gary and applied here.”
That first position in the fall of 1945 was at Lincoln Elementary School, and included the teaching of literature to an integrated classroom of children, grades three through six. In addition to her teaching duties, Johnson also participated in the development of intercultural workshops for her fellow teachers, as well as helping to advance multicultural curriculums for the state. Over the years, she continued to be an involved community member, including working with organizations like Council of Social Agencies, The Douglass Community Center, the YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. A lesser known ‘first’ came with Johnson being elected as president of the Douglass Community Center, the first woman to hold the position.
After receiving a Rosenberg Fellowship in 1947, Pauline briefly left Kalamazoo for New York University to earn her master’s degree, and to work with other civil rights activists and educators. This opportunity resulted in her meeting black luminaries such as Langston Hughes, A. Philip Randolph and Mary MacLeod Bethune. After six years teaching at Woodward Elementary School, Johnson transferred to Kalamazoo Central High School, retiring in 1969.
In 1957, Johnson married Clifford Johnson, a chef and later, a bail bondsman for the city. The couple purchased a home together in the Westwood Neighborhood despite some in the neighborhood circulating a petition against their moving into the area. Mr. Johnson passed away in 1967.
Photograph–Kalamazoo Gazette A “Lone Wolf”
Throughout her life, Johnson was an outspoken voice in the community, often writing editorial pieces for publications like
The Kalamazoo Gazette, Kalamazoo Magazine and Christian Science Monitor. Her daughter referred to her as a “lone wolf” at the time of her death–characterizing her as someone who was willing to stand up for her principles even in the face of strong opposition. Never one to shy away from expressing her views with both a sharp sense of humor and wise acumen, friends and critics alike, knew where Johnson stood on hot button issues centered around civil rights and education. In an editorial column on the occasion of her death, The Kalamazoo Gazette pointed to her conservative, Booker T. Washington-like belief “that people can succeed in life if they try hard enough, regardless of color”. Johnson was first and foremost, a demanding educator who saw potential success in all of her students, regardless of their ethnicity or economic background. Johnson’s life of overcoming the obstacles of being a black woman to become an accomplished teacher grounded many of her intransigent views, some of which were unpopular, including her opposition to school bussing and affirmative action policies. Later in life, her interest in historical subjects led her to become an active member of a local group called the Civil War Roundtable. Pauline Byrd Johnson died December 3rd, 1988.
Article written by Kalamazoo Public Library staff, Ryan Gage, February 2022