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Carroll F. Johnson, a Pioneering School Superintendent Who Led in School Integration, Dies at 99

Teachers College alumnus and former faculty member Carroll F. Johnson, who presided over integration of the White Plains, New York, school district -- the first U.S. school system to voluntarily institute a racial desegregation plan, and subsequently a model for school integration efforts nationwide -- has passed away at the age of 99.

Read the New York Times obituary on Carroll Johnson
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By Joe Levine

Teachers College alumnus and former faculty member Carroll F. Johnson, who presided over integration of the White Plains, New York, school district – the first U.S. school system to voluntarily institute a racial desegregation plan, and subsequently a model for school integration efforts nationwide – has passed away at the age of 99.

Johnson, a Southerner who grew up on a farm in rural Georgia and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, was a nationally revered figure who advised hundreds of school districts across the country on the hiring of superintendents, creating a blueprint for that process that ensured a voice for community members. During the volatile era of the 1960s and early 1970s, he also spoke widely on how to handle student unrest, particularly around racial issues.  

“Dr. Johnson was a pioneer and a visionary, and fearless in his devotion to building a just and equitable society using public education as an engine for social change,” wrote Louis Wool, Superintendent of Schools for the Harrison, New York, Central School District, and President of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, in a memo to his fellow Council members. “He believed deeply that committed colleagues could change the course and destiny of the lives of children.” Johnson was the founder of the Council.

Johnson himself recalled in a 2010 interview at Teachers College that he was unequivocal in viewing school integration as a moral issue. “I took the position that each student is educated, in significant measure, by the forces that we apply -- that you find that where the schools are predominantly black, they’re less well financially supported, and that if the parents are a major force, and the parents are predominantly poor, then their voices are not as well heard.”

Yet he was also a shrewd tactician who said of the superintendent’s role, “I took it as a matter of fact that the most important job you have is to make the board look good”; who preferred to avoid being seen as crusading for a cause -- “I think the more you preach, the less effective you are” – and who often appealed to his constituents on pragmatic rather than moral grounds. “I certainly am not above saying that if I can prove that it’s economically better, I would do that,” he said of his efforts on behalf of school integration. “I would use all the means that are legitimate, to get a culture of diverse population. I learned to work with those political powers, and I never had them cross me in anything I wanted to do, because I developed a reputation for being able to get the things I recommended done.”

Carroll Johnson was born in 1913 in Dade County, Georgia. As a child, he had virtually no contact with blacks and recently recalled that Dade County at that time provided little if any education for black children. Although his mother was an elementary school teacher, Johnson became an educator primarily because, during the Depression, there were teaching jobs available.

It was only later, when he attended the University of Georgia at Athens, that Teachers College alumnus Walter Cocking, Dean of the university’s College of Education – and subsequently the target of a statewide purge of administrators accused of promoting better schooling for blacks – persuaded him to pursue education as a true career.

Johnson became a high school principal in Fitzgerald, Georgia, but resigned to join the Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Because he had previously doubled as a school athletic coach, his initial assignment in the Navy was running the physical training programs for new recruits. He subsequently became Chief Petty Officer in Physical Training, running the physical training program at the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy until his discharge in 1945.

By then, inspired by Cocking, he was already commuting from Philadelphia to New York City to take courses in school leadership at Teachers College courtesy of the G.I. Bill, which he later described as “the greatest investment this country ever made.”  

“Teachers College was regarded nationally as the place of training of school administrators,” Johnson has recalled.  “When I came here I said, in essence, ‘You can get a job anywhere in the world if you have a degree from Teachers College.’”

At TC, where William F. Russell was then President, Johnson’s advisor was Willard Elsbree, an expert on school salaries and working conditions, and his other mentors included Will French, who worked with high school administrators; Paul Mort, who advised state legislatures on school matters; and William P. “Andy” Anderson, who worked in Afghanistan developing curriculum and textbooks for elementary and secondary schools there.

“Teachers College gave me the foundation for my career,” Johnson said.

After graduating from TC, Johnson served in a series of superintendents’ jobs, including in New Town, Connecticut, Amherst, Massachusetts, and Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He stayed in the latter job for just a year and a half, but honed the political skills he would employ throughout his career.

“Fitchburg had a reputation for how people got jobs -- one teacher came to me and said, ‘Dr. Johnson, the only way you ever get a job here is to go to the politicians to get into the schools’ –so the first thing I did was get the mayor to front for something for which he got a lot of credit,” Johnson recalled. “We put on our application form in Fitchburg, ‘the use of political, social, religious or any other form of pressure will automatically disqualify a candidate from further consideration.’ We put that at the head of all our applications, and the mayor got credit for it.”

Johnson left Fitchburg to become Superintendent in White Plains – a job he initially turned down because the school board was split on his candidacy, with only a 3-2 vote in favor.

“I said, ‘No, I think the superintendency is too important, and the community is entitled to someone the board can unanimously agree on,’” he recalled. Ultimately, the two members who had opposed him came to Fitchburg to interview him privately and decided to vote in favor of hiring him. Their support turned out to be important, because one of the two later became president of the board.  “We got a long fine,” Johnson said.

During the two decades Johnson led the White Plains school district, getting buy-in and consensus was his signature strategy – particularly in presiding over the community discussions that led to the decision, in 1964, to integrate. Ultimately the city decided to close a predominantly black school and transport black students to schools with heavily white populations. The goal was to ensure that in each school, a minimum of 10 percent, and a maximum of 30 percent, of the student body would be made up of black students. That formula was widely emulated around the country.

The effort succeeded, Johnson said, “because we didn’t have a plan, which we presented – ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ We had a couple of consultants working with us, and in the beginning I told them that we did not want them to present plans. I wanted them to answer questions only when asked and not present their views. The things that have been most harmful to the integration plans, it seems to me, have been where you get some outside consultant, and the plan gets named after that consultant, and it’s foisted on the community. Then people divide up and oppose it, because they had no voice in bringing it about. When they have a choice, and a voice in the development of the plan, it’s their plan. They have part ownership, because they were on the ground floor in the development of it.”

Still, integration was not achieved without difficulty. One day after Johnson was asked to speak at Teachers College about the successful effort, black high school students in White Plains staged a boycott because they felt that the schools they had been transferred to were neglecting a black perspective on current civil rights issues. Johnson met with the students and acceded to some of their requests –including playing the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech over the school PA system.  The students ended the boycott on the day that King was assassinated.  There was violence in schools across the country, but not in White Plains.

Johnson later employed a similarly inclusive approach in his role as a consultant to school districts on the hiring of superintendents.  “In each district, I said that it was important that the community feel a part of the employment of the new superintendent, and that the community had a voice in that employment. So I recommended to the boards that employed me, that they have a public meeting, and that we ask the community, to tell the board what kind of person they wanted, and what kind of professional requirements, experience, and so , they felt the superintendent should have.”  

While still serving as White Plains’ superintendent, Johnson joined the faculty of Teachers College in 1967 as an adjunct, in what was then the Department of Educational Administration. He initially turned down an offer of a fulltime professorship, instead requesting a teaching slot at 7:30 on Friday evenings because it was the one time he could safely step away from his superintendent’s duties. The following year, he accepted a fulltime professorship and also the directorship of the Institute of Field Studies, which conducted surveys of school districts. “I had always expected and wanted to teach at the college level,” he said, “and I felt that this was the best opportunity I would ever have.”

In 2010, looking back on his career, Johnson said that, for him, being a superintendent was about “giving teachers freedom to teach their subjects, and not be interfered with too much.  

“I felt it was a pretty good way to make a living,” he added. “That you go into a community, you’re widely accepted socially and other ways, and you’re given a chance to do your job. I felt the pay was reasonable, the expectations were high but reasonable and I liked it. I liked to work with the teachers, the community leaders and other people.”

He was less enthusiastic about how the role has evolved in recent times. 

“I think it’s somewhat more of a hazardous job than it used to be,” he said. “I’m not sure the superintendency is as powerful in directing a program as it used to be, or is accorded the power it used to have in determining the quality of a particular school district. I think there’s less individual leadership and direction from the superintendent, and maybe less support from the superintendent for the various entities of the school system than there was.”

He did, however, have good things to say about people who serve on school boards.

“I think by and large, school boards are a rather unselfish lot. Of all of the hundreds of board members – thousands I’ve been connected with tangentially – I’ve had very few that I thought were exploiting their board membership. I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the people who have been involved in the support of schools.”

Read the New York Times obituary on Carroll Johnson,

Published Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012