Activist, Bridge Builder and Educator

Dorothy H. Johnson to Join Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

For a young black woman, unmarried, impoverished and expecting a baby soon, the future must have looked bleak. For those fortunate enough to find the Florence Home in Kansas City, however, there was hope. Dorothy Johnson, the home’s social worker, case worker and eventual director, would see that the girl got loving care and more: counseling, education, shelter and medical care.

Throughout her life, Johnson was either writing about, serving or teaching about those on the fringe of society. In recognition of her lifetime achievements and contributions, Dorothy Johnson is one of seven exceptional women from the Metropolitan Kansas City area included in the inaugural class of honorees to be recognized in the new Starr Women’s Hall of Fame. Stories of other inductees can be found online.

Johnson graduated from the University of Kansas in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Phi Beta Kappa key, the first black woman at KU to earn one. She was proud to finish her coursework at the William Allen White School of Journalism, and happier still when her summer job at the Kansas City Call newspaper turned into a full-time position.

For Johnson, journalism was not just a trade – it was more of a sacred duty. Her reporting brought minority news to light, made sure events in the black community were recorded, raised the consciousness of the community and set the record straight.

After the death of her first husband, Johnson returned to KU to take a Master of Social Work degree, then accepted university-level positions teaching and researching social work and medicine. By 1977, she was selected as Social Worker of the Year.

During her career, spanning almost 50 years, Johnson was involved with many civic and non-profit agencies: she was director of Jackson County’s Office of Health and Welfare; public relations expert for the Urban League; overseer of a project, through the Mid-America Regional Council, planning long-term care for the frail and forgotten elderly; director of the community mental health program for Model Cities; and research associate for the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Foundation.

Whether in a professional capacity or as a volunteer, Johnson was widely known as a civil rights activist, bridge builder and educator. The new wave of African American women wanting to break out of traditional roles found a mentor in Johnson. She set the standard, working directly with those in need, refining what was expected of women in leadership.

It was nearly impossible to tell when Johnson retired. The same causes that were her life’s work remained her focus. She and her husband, Herman Johnson, president of the NAACP of Kansas City, had more time to devote to community affairs. She was recognized by many regional groups: the NAACP, Central Exchange, the Local Investment Commission (LINC), and UMKC, where the Johnsons were honored with a residence hall named for them. In 1974, she received KU’s highest alumni award, the Distinguished Service Award.

Johnson is emblematic of how much can be accomplished when ordinary citizens take action to address injustice and hardship. In the late 1950s, the major department stores in downtown Kansas City, Mo., would not serve black people at their lunch counters. Women from the local NAACP chapter asked the stores to drop this restriction, but the request was refused. The women picketed, but still nothing happened. Then the women cancelled their charge accounts and urged other women to do the same.

“It was during the crucial Christmas shopping season,” Johnson said. “We went in, paid off our bills, and did not shop there anymore.”

By April, the stores had had enough. The lunch counters were open to all.

Johnson died July 7, 2004 in Kansas City, Missouri.

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