Sandye Poitier Johnson Oral History

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  • Oral Histories

Citation

Johnson, Sandye Poitier, “Sandye Poitier Johnson Oral History,” Harlem Education History Project, accessed June 16, 2021, https://harlemeducationhistory.library.columbia.edu/collection/items/show/144.

Transcript

Flowers: Good evening this is Deidre Flowers interviewing Dr. Sandye Poitier Johnson on the evening of November 25, 2013 in her home located at 273 West 132nd Street. Good evening Dr. Johnson, I’d like to thank you first for agreeing to assist me with my class project and I would like to open up and talk about your life Your life here in Harlem your education experience and your educational leadership experience having been the principal at Thurgood Marshall so (um) the first questions that I would like to ask is can you tell me a bit about your upbringing or your growing up here in Harlem.
Johnson: Well (um), I’ve always lived in Harlem and I’m an only child and (uh) grew up on 132nd street where I currently still live and was very poor my parents (ah) never finished school (ah) my father never finished elementary school and I think my mother maybe went to middle school but didn’t finish school after that and (um) they always had a vision of providing for me what could not what they were not provided with when they were growing up so I remember my father really took a business that most people would think would not make much money he shined shoes and (um) one day he used to shine shoes up in Washington Heights in a barber shop and my father was a very … everyone liked my father they always said Charlie is a great guy…and
Flowers: Do you remember the exact location of that … shop?
Johnson: No I just know it was Washington Heights so to me it is in this…what is a very Latino area now I don’t know what it was then…
Flowers: um hmm
Johnson: it could have been much…I think I’m quite sure it was much different probably was a much more Jewish area or white area and yeah it had to be white because when this man met my father (clears throat) and he really liked him he said “Charlie, I want you to come and work for me in my building” so my father came home and told us he was leaving he told my mother he said that he was leaving this steady job at the barbershop to go work in this building my mother said what kind of building is the story they tell me well apparently this man was the CEO of Phillip Morris …
Flowers: hmmm
Johnson: which was big time then and his building was 100 Park Avenue on 41st street and they did not have anyone there to shine shoes so he gave that whole building to my father never charged him any fee for any vendorship in that building and my father actually had appointments made for him to come and shine peoples shoes and it became a very lucrative business for him which helped put me through college gave me my first job provided him with tons of suits from people who didn’t want to wear their suits anymore (um) just really … if I told people his job they would never think it would lead to the lucrative end that it did my mother was a factory worker she was a draper and a draper is a person who puts the finishing touches on a garment so the pleats the buttons any finishing piece and together they gave me whatever they needed to as a very poor family almost to give me all the opportunities so that they know that I would be successful so what does that mean? Well I went to private school …
Flowers: Which one?
Johnson: I went to School on the Hill which is not in existence anymore it was a Lutheran School and its on it was on 141st Street 145th on the corner of Convent Avenue it was a school and then a Lutheran Church its right across the street from Convent Avenue Baptist Church and (um, clears throat) I went there from Kindergarten through (ah) 6th grade and then they couldn’t afford it anymore so (ah) they (ah) researched I don’t know my mother even though they didn’t have paper schooling they were very smart as to garnishing resources or knowing what how to get for me what they wanted for me to achieve so they researched it and the bus driver of ... they guy who drove the school bus that picked me up for the private school
Flowers: mmm hmmm
Johnson: The School on the Hill (um) lived in the Bronx near the Westchester line and so my mother became were friends with them so she negotiated to use his address and send me outside of Harlem to upper Bronx near Westchester to school…
Flowers: What year was that?
Johnson: OK…19…I graduated in 65…4…3…2…1…0… I wanna say either 1959 or 1960
Flowers: Did your parents give a reason why they didn’t want you to go to school in Harlem?
Johnson: Well… the schools in this area were not deemed the best schools back then we’re talking about decades ago and some of the schools were not safe gang related I know that IS 136 when I was growing up (ah) a student was murdered in the building somebody drowned her in the toilet (ah) so my parents were not going to send me to any school in district 5…
Flowers: and …
Johnson: and historically many parents in district 5 did not send their their children to probably more middle schools (ah) in district 5 because there were a lot of students at the school I went to that lived right in Harlem we used to travel together all the time
Flowers: So IS 136 would have been your zoned school?
Johnson: yes, that’s the school on 135th and Edgecombe avenue and it was an all girl school and you could look up the history of it I don’t know much about the history of the school but it was notorious and it was eventually closed (clears throat) I don’t know if that incident led to the closing of it but (uh) my parents were definitely not gonna send me to a place they did not feel that I was gonna be safe particularly because I led a very sheltered life I went to school in the morning my parents always had me in afterschool programs because they worked when the bus came home it was … I [was] dropped off at 6:00, I did homework went to bed I had dancing lessons I had piano lessons so they always had activities for me so I wasn’t a kid who you would see playing on the street
Flowers: Did you have friends in the neighborhood?
Johnson: only friends I had were friends I went to school with (um) I really didn’t have friends in the block I mean I knew people they saw me I saw them if I’d go to the store you know we would kinda see each other all the time and we would say hi I’d know your name and you’d know mine but it wasn’t a relationship where we would go to each others house because we just were not… we didn’t go to the same schools our parents didn’t go to the same church you know my mother was very active in Abyssinian Baptist Church you know and I used to say don’t I get a break I was in school like 7 days a week you know there was some regular school Monday through Friday Saturday was some kinda school whether it was dancing school piano lessons she even sent me when I guess I was in high school at that time she sent me to and a lot of young ladies went there during the 1960s was Ophelia Devore Charm School
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: ‘cause it was just thought of that every young lady had to go to charm school before going to college so that they would know the proper etiquette I hated it but you know…
Flowers: and this was in conjunction with high school, so you went to the charm school as you were in high school?
Johnson: yeah but it wasn’t part of high school
Flowers: it wasn’t part of high school…
Johnson: it was something that we did on the weekend it was something my parents had to pay for and it was housed in the old Ed Sullivan where Ed Sullivan had his TV show downtown I think its in the I wanna say in the early 50s or late 40s on Broadway there is a theatre it used to be called the Ed Sullivan Theatre where his show was filmed and it was an office building adjacent to it or on top of it and that’s where Ophelia Devore …Ophelia Devore is really known she was a model very famous very popular in the 1960s and felt that what she learned as a model needed to be transferred to young ladies coming up so it was very popular to be in her school you know we had different classes on etiquette walking talking conversation clothes my mother I guess I did it in my when I was in 11th grade or 12th grade because (um) my mother used that as a way to know what to buy me to go to college because she had never gone none of her relatives have ever gone none of my fathers family had ever gone I was probably the first person between their two families that went to college
Flowers: So you went straight through all the way through attaining a doctorate first generation college
Johnson: yeah well I didn’t go
Flowers: not saying straight through but when you say that your parents neither of them had college degrees and possibly no one else in their family had them you were the first generation
Johnson: at that time
Flowers: and you went to went through to a terminal degree
Johnson: right it doesn’t mean that nobody in my family has a degree now
Flowers: oh no
Johnson: it means that I was like the first not that I think of it I never thought of it that way but yeah
Flowers: I think of it that way too because neither of my parents had a college degree and um I’m first generation and if I ever finish this PhD (chuckle) I’ll be like you and an only child as well… um ok…so here’s a question you mentioned IS 136 would have been your school are you familiar at all with the case of the Harlem 9?
Johnson: (pause) you’re not talking about recently you’re talking about …
Flowers: back in the mid to late 1950s there were a group of parents who (ah) boycotted 3 Junior High Schools (um) and in the paperwork that I’ve seen they’ve been called Junior High Schools instead of IS or PS 136, 139 and 120
Johnson: no I never heard of them what are they?
Flowers: um so these parents um working in conjunction with Kenneth Clark and his folks at the Northside Center if I’m calling it correctly …
Johnson: yeah on 110th street
Flowers: on 110th street I think that was their last location but I think there were two more in different places in Harlem I think they in different places in Harlem I think they started out at Dunbar apartments and I think they moved further north before they moved down to 110th street (um) they declared that these schools the children in Central Harlem weren’t allowed to go out of their district and I cant remember if it was like district 12 or 13 at the time (um) but based on the curriculum and the overcrowding and the fact that they schools were majority one race and in this case mostly black and Hispanic (um) and the fact that the children couldn’t compete when they got out of these Junior High Schools and when they went to High School or they were failing and they were failing to go to college the parents boycotted the schools saying that they were offering an inferior education and that they were segregated (um) and there was (um) there were several cases in the courts and there was a case that ended up in the I wanna say the children’s court (ah) Justine Wise Polier was the justice who found in support of the parents saying that the schools were inferior and that something needed to be done but it wasn’t it didn’t have like a legal binding…yeah and … a legal binding or set a legal … it set a legal precedent but it wasn’t binding on the Board of Education (um) and the Board of Ed through from the mid 1950s straight up probably until the 1970s and even maybe now (um) parents are still discussing or in some way saying that the education may not be meeting their needs so (um) for this class I was writing on this particular topic when I came into this class and that’s one of the reasons I took the class but (um) as I’m thinking about Harlem and the work that you’ve done in the schools with the Board of Ed (um) wondering how you got from attending a private school to where did you go for high school?
Johnson: I went to Olinville Junior High School on Barnes Avenue in the Bronx and then Evander Childs which was a top high school at that time
Flowers: In the Bronx as well
Johnson: which was about maybe 85% white and only 15% black or hispanic
Flowers: So how is it that your early education affected your I guess career trajectory how did you decide…what about your early education made you decide that education was a course you wanted to pursue
Johnson: well it really wasn’t a course I wanted to pursue I really wanted to be a psychiatrist but I said it took too long who would stay in school all those years to become a doctor (inaudible) then in hindsight I did go to school all those years but at that age I wasn’t geared more to (um) it was not in my mind to ever spend that many years in school so what I did was I majored in psychology and then for my masters I focused on working with the emotionally handicapped because I felt as a psychiatrist you know you help people with emotional disorders and that would put me closer to the field that I wanted to be in but as I got into that field working with the emotionally handicapped I found that most of them were learning disabled that a lot of them had educational issues and wanted to learn more about that because I don’t think you could treat one without the other and so that’s what kinda led me to and I really don’t know I was very young I applied for my doctorate at Columbia like when I was like 22or 23 I was very young
Flowers: So right out of undergrad?
Johnson: no (inaudible) how did I do that I’m just trying to think I think what I did was I cant remember I’m quite sure when I graduated from Morgan (pause) I I cant remember I cant remember whether I went straight to Columbia and then decided to go to Bank Street I cant remember the order ‘cause I’m having I’m a senior now but I do know that the reason I went to Columbia because I felt there was compound issues with kids who were troubled and I got accepted in the doctoral program in my early 20s and I went a year and I was blown away I was like not ready for Columbia’s environment I I coming from an all black historically black school and then and going to a school where most of the students did not look like me I think I was the only person of color in my department I felt whereas an historically black school I don’t wanna say our hands were held but people knew your name you know if you didn’t show up for class you would get a call from the De(an) you know it was more of a nurturing family environment and that’s what I was used to but at Columbia you have to grow up very quickly you were on your own you had to figure it out
Flowers: it was grad school
Johnson: yeah you had to figure it out and not that the advisors didn’t help you or work with you but you had to determine what the work was what the focus was a lot of work you had to do that I wasn’t used to and it completely blew me away and so I went for one year and dropped out for nine
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: ‘cause you had ten years until you loose your admission status
Flowers: Mmm hmm
Johnson: so I went back in my late I wanna say almost like mid 30s and I … ’cause I didn’t wanna loose kinda was older more mature more experienced more looking professionally down the line what I you know what I wanted to do and so I that’s when I got accepted into the (ah) learning disabilities department at (um) Columbia and its very interesting because I was the only teacher of color in the school that I was working in at the time that I applied originally to Columbia and the other teachers in the school had also applied to the doctoral program
Flowers: Is that Montague School?
Johnson: ah huh
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and when they apparently got their letters before I did and they didn’t get in and so they sss when we were having lunch they said we got our letters we didn’t get in well I guess we will have to try again so I said well I didn’t get my letter yet she said oh you know we’re all you know but when I got my letter for acceptance I said oh I got accepted their first questions was how did you get in? how did you get accepted? So I think they said that before they really thought about what they said I dint answer it ‘cause I didn’t want to dignify it with a response
Flowers: What do you think caused their response?
Johnson: that I was a person of color and that they were more qualified than me they were more … they taught longer than me I was young only how could I get in and they were in their 30s and couldn’t get in they had much more experience but I had more I had more professional training I went to Bank Street yeah I’m quite sure it was Bank Street yeah I was at Bank Street and then I went to Columbia
Flowers: Mmm hmm
Johnson: and why I know that is my (um) advisor was Selma Sapier which was a well renowned learning disabilities specialist internationally and she wrote my recommendation plus I didn’t go to a CUNY school I went to Bank Street Bank Street was a very progressive up and coming school top school on education if you went to Bank Street and came out you were known to have a well rounded (um) training as a teacher or a practitioner so they went to City Colleges now I’m not saying that City College’s weren’t great but I know the training I taught as a professor at City College and I’ve had and I went as a student to Bank Street there’s a big difference there’s a big difference in the …
Flowers: At the graduate level
Johnson: yes it’s a big difference a big difference in the students that go there the training that they’re given we had access to the experts you know people Elsbeth Pfieffer (spelling?) was head of the (um) one department and she was the one who started (uh) the (uh) children’s psychiatric (uh) center at Bellevue you know so I was surrounded by the experts you know and I don’t know if that level of training happened at the other colleges the public colleges or CUNY or whatever
Flowers: so take a step back for a minute, can you tell me about your time at Morgan (um) I think you mentioned earlier that your major was psychology what were some of the things that you did when you were on campus? What were some of the extra curricular activities
Johnson: Well you really want to know that do you?
Flowers: Yes (laughs)
Johnson: It wasn’t educational
Flowers: Ah, social (laughs)
Johnson: my first year I had a tough time transitioning first of all I didn’t want to go to Morgan I cried for a month I thought if I called my parents and cried everyday and ran up their telephone bill they would say oh we have to have our baby come home but it didn’t work and I guess after a month I realized I wasn’t going anywhere so I just kinda figured it out and there were a lot of students there from New York so we kinda bonded (ah) really made some good friends that I’m still friends with (inaudible) I mean my best friend Geneva I met you know at college I think that Morgan were the best years of my life besides our child and my husband it was Morgan it really changed me I was at the end of high school I kinda think my middle school hormones didn’t come out until 1tth grade 12th grade and I just like was full blown I was always very studious but I turned the opposite my 11th and 12th year I did a lot of truanting I gave liquor parties I mean I could go on and tell you I was just horrible I mean I was just absolutely I cant tell ya, I don’t know what happened to me I fell in love with this young man who I thought was just a god and ya know he was of course not in school about a year john was about a year or two older than me and me so that’s the only thing I would leave in the morning with my bag and I would just double back home knowing my parents had left and come home and just do ah it was just horrible now what happened was you know the communities at that time were very stable and so there were people in the neighborhood who I considered aunts and uncles you know who really weren’t but because they were our neighbors yeah out of respect you always say “aunt this” “aunt that” well they threw me under the bus you know they would see me come home so they told my parents eventually and I got caught and went on lockdown and I barely I barely got out of high school I think the only reason I don’t even know I think my parents filled out the application I mean I didn’t have any part of the process because the schools were not very helpful at that time
Flowers: umm hmm the high schools?
Johnson: yeah I remember (um) the guidance counselor at my school telling my mother that she thinks I should go to cosmetology school my mother knew that that was not what she had in mind for me and so she said “thank you very much” and she you know again rallied with other parents who were sending ‘cause everyone went to college there was no way nobody would go to college when I was growing up that’s what in this neighborhood everybody applied to college that I knew everybody applied I mean that was the goal so she talked with other parents I guess just filled out the application I didn’t fill out the application I was rebellious at that point you know and I guess I did good on my SATs because I didn’t have any remedial courses because they did have an A, B, and C track the A track was remedial so you could only take like 10 credits 10 or 11 credits plus remedial courses
Flowers: and that…that’s in college?
Johnson: in college
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and I was on the B track which means I could take up to 16 with no remediation and C meant you were gifted I guess and you could take up to 18 to 20 credits you know which meant you could graduate earlier (ah) and so I was really angry with them that they sent me there I didn’t want to go there you know Baltimore Maryland my parents didn’t drive they didn’t have a car but they packed my trunk mailed it I guess and put got on a bus with them greyhound or trailways I mean they made it happen for me (um) I had my little fur stole because that’s what Ophelia Devore said that’s what you needed to have a little fur stole and I had my little gown I mean they did what they had to do I didn’t understand it then and maybe I wasn’t supposed to you know just do it (um) and I was miserable the first month but then I kinds knew I wasn’t coming home and so I had to make it work I made friends and it was the best years of my life my best friendships my best times it just made me a person it really formulated who I am today I doubt if I would be where I am today if I had not gone to Morgan being surrounded by role models that looked like me most of the professors were people of color really took an interest in you (um) a lot of young people that (ah) came from all different places that I had never been with such high aspirations you know once you surround yourself you are who you surround yourself with and I wasn’t surrounding myself with the right people most of the people I hung out with are dead or either in jail
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: none of them went to college none of them survived so I was really hanging
Flowers: these are people from high school?
Johnson: these are people from the neighborhood
Flowers: ok
Johnson: friends that I really from that 11th and 12th year friends of my boyfriend you know and and was the best four years I graduated I think with honors I got the exemplary award from the psychology department (um) although my first year they kicked me off campus because I didn’t have a strong enough average to stay on they didn’t kick me out of school I couldn’t stay on campus and again I was lucky that my parents you know did their resources and the college had housing off campus and I got it with three other young ladies who we became very good friends right down the road maybe it was better because I could be more focused being in a house rather than in a dorm where so much was going on and it worked out and I graduated on time never had to go to summer school (um) and did very well
Flowers: so you were at Morgan in the 1960s?
Johnson: lets think (??) I was a cheerleader I became a cheerleader a freshman class officer or was it sophomore it was one of the years either freshman or sophomore (um) I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) as a matter of fact the day we went on line was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968 (inaudible) you know so a lot of memories a lot of people we still keep in touch it was just really a wonderful wonderful time in my life that I will never forget
Flowers: now while … you were on campus in the midst of the civil rights movement did…
Johnson: no I wasn’t oh yeah I was in Baltimore I mean I was on campus for a year that was from 1964
Flowers: well when I say on campus I really mean just in college what were the students like at Morgan? Did they participate in any of the civil rights movement activities? I know that in 1960 the four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NCA&T) were credited with kind of reinvigorating the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) by staging that what some people call the first but what is really not the first (um) sit in there were several many going back many many years (um) sit-ins that were staged but did the students at Morgan [participate] were they active?
Johnson: yeah we were I wasn’t because my mother told me “look girl I sent you down there” people in the north were not how can I put this? The north student from the north were not as (um) socially conscious I should say not because we weren’t not because we didn’t want to be but because we didn’t the experience we most.. a lot of our friends they had the experience of only drinking at a fountain for “colored” people or sitting in certain seats because they were colored …can you pause?
Stopped 32:04 for Dr. Johnson to take a phone call
Recording #2 - continuation
Flowers: restarting the discussion with Dr. Johnson you were talking about the experience of students from the North versus students from the South
Johnson: Right you know we, I didn’t I could sit anywhere I wanted on the bus, I never had that experience I could go in any store doesn’t mean that maybe I was treated differently but it wasn’t that I couldn’t buy in the store (um) I think more up north people didn’t work in they didn’t hire people of color but it doesn’t mean that people of color couldn’t go into the stores where in the south a lot of my friends had a more (um) different type of experience you know Klu Klux Klan I never I mean I used to see it on TV but it was not up in my back yard you know like some of my friends had or the lynchings or all of that stuff you know my friends from Alabama Birmingham Alabama who were I don’t know if the three young ladies were bombed I don’t I forget which
Flowers: four it was four young ladies and I wanna say that was 1963
Johnson: yeah so people they had all those personal (inaudible) and ours were more detached it was more things we read about and didn’t experience and so my other and father were not (um) told me you know I could not I was not allowed to protest that was it they put their money and they didn’t want me kicked out of school they wanted to make sure I get that degree you know you can protest after but you ain’t gonna protest now I never was part of the protest however there were many protests of students (um) at Morgan State College making the college more aware of (ah) the need for them to become more active the civil rights movement we had a shopping center right up the hill from the school it was called north “something” north manor I cant remember the exact name but they had a beauty salon in there and students used to try to go get their hair done and they would not do students of color’s hair they only do white people’s hair and so they that got the students to protest to shut down the whole shopping center but we protested so no one would go up to the restaurant the movie theatre to the clothing store whatever was up there we would not shop and that’s the major protest that I remember I mean we’ve had a Klu Klux Klan who burned a cross on our campus it was very frightening but the most time was April 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated it (?) was on lockdown I mean you could see smoke I could literally see the smoke from DC the fires that were burning (um) we couldn’t get we wanted to go home but we couldn’t get off campus we didn’t have transportation we couldn’t get downtown to the bus station it was just whoa it was a real horrible time I mean I had a hard time getting home (um) and I’ve never seen that seen riots before or burnings like that
Flowers: so were you coming home because of a particular time or you just wanted to go home?
Johnson: oh no they shut the school down we needed to go home we were trying to get home
Flowers: so when you finally did get home what was Harlem like?
Johnson: more riots (laugh) I left riots to come home to riots (um) (pause) I was inside I remember how my mother and the other of the neighbors went out to the dry cleaners because their clothes was in there and they were getting ready to rob and burn and they drew a like a link a human body link in front ‘cause they said no that’s our clothes why are you you know why are you hurting us its not us you’re really angry at
Flowers: do you know who the owner of the cleaners was?
Johnson: it was a person of color most of the businesses when I grew up in Harlem were businesses of color ‘cause white folks didn’t want didn’t have businesses up here major businesses we had the fish and chip place we had the grocery stores we had the cleaners and we had the beauty parlors so there was a you could truly say that in Harlem the service was provided by people of color I cant say that now the grocery stores are middle eastern (um) the beauty parlors are Dominican or the braiding stores are African (um) the cleaners are Asian (um) even the business my father started shoe shine are not people of color anymore we do not have any service industry or business that we can say we are the major service providers of no more
Flowers: what do you think has caused that shift and where are we if we are not in the service industry anymore?
Johnson: we are the consumers we are the people who spend our money to get those services we don’t provide them (ah) our businesses if we do start don’t last a lot you know they open and they close they are not long lasting why does that happen you know there’s many reasons why economics I think the downfall of our community for me started with the Vietnam war I think a lot of our
Flowers: is that the 1950s
Johnson: no it’s the 1960s
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and I think after the war ended I cant remember what year it was a lot of our young men came home drug addicted or so traumatized by the (ah) ravages of war that they were not socially available (ah) you know to come home to start families to work and then the infusion of crack in our communities which led to a flight of many people from Harlem you know where there was just a bl(inaudible) huge number of empty abandoned buildings or crack houses (um) you know there was that flood of flight to suburbia to queens Jamaica (inaudible) Jamaica oh my god you know that was the flight that was like the better life (um) and Harlem was no longer in its golden age you know (um)
Flowers: When would you say …
Johnson: it was not the place to live if you said I’m going to Harlem oh Harlem you know when we bought our Brownstone we bought our Brownstone for $4,000.00 in the 1980s and we tried to get some of our friends to buy “no we ain’t moving to Harlem are you kidding” all those crack houses there are no services there were no stores I couldn’t even get a tape to rent there were no like Blockbusters (ah) the tapes were being rented in bodegas and grocery stores and in order to rent a tape I would say well do you want my credit card oh no we just need to see your phone bill or electric bill I mean you couldn’t use a credit card anywhere in Harlem nobody would deliver everything was cash and carry (um) there were no services we always had to go outside of the community for a great grocery store great restaurant movie theatre you know Magic Johnson is new for many years we didn’t have a movie theatre in Harlem (um) it was just you were redlined you were redlined in in this neighborhood I always had I don’t know if my husband had as much a vision as I he’s just been great he’s always supported any vision I’ve had even though he didn’t understand where I was going I literally this house was owned by the barber that did my fathers hair and when my husband started talking about moving to Queens I knew that it would either mean divorce or I would have to find something in Harlem and so I came back to my own neighborhood I had my parents had passed at that point as a matter of fact it was a year the same year that my parents passed shortly after my parents passed six months to the day (ah) it was a very traumatic time for me in November I lost my father in February I lost my second child I had a miscarriage I think I was I actually had to deliver I had to deliver which was (uh) and then my mother passed in may so it was a really rough time for me and that’s when I started becoming very involved in the church anyway I had been up here volunteering with the church and my husband said he was moving to queens I said oh no baby Sandye ain’t going to Queens so I came back to my block and I
Flowers: Where were you living at the time? You were in Harlem but where were you before you bought this Brownstone
Johnson: 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and I came back to this block and I don’t know the brownstones weren’t in they were not in in the 1980s I don’t know which is why I think it was a divine destiny you know why I was looking at these buildings I never grew up in a brownstone I didn’t even know what a brownstone looked like inside I I grew up in a tenement house but I knew I didn’t want to go to Queens I was not going to Queens and my Mr. (ah) Teddy ah the barber what was his name I cant remember his name I asked him about any houses for sale on the block all I knew was that it was a house my husband wanted a house this was considered a house and he said you know Mr. Gaddy who owns the candy store on the corner that’s where we used to get our candy as a child all the time he said you know Mr. Gaddy has a house and I don’t think he wants it so I said ok I’ll go and ask him so I did and he said “true I’m walking away from it I’m not paying any taxes the city can have it back” I says well Mr. Gaddy I really would like that house I said I wanna buy it I didn’t even look inside it he just showed me where it was I went and saw the front of the house I went back to the corner I said mr gaddy I want this house I’m gonna buy it can you tell me how much? He said $1,750.00 that’s the first thing he said so I said ok Mr. Gaddy I said I’m going to give you a deposit right now to lock us in so Tommy had given me a check to go pay Con Edison but I didn’t fill it out yet so I filled it out made it to him for $100.00 ‘cause he’s from old school the old school businessmen black businessmen its only about your honor and your word and a handshake and it was good I knew that so I (um) gave him the check and then I called Tommy and told him what I did and hung up the phone so he could just breath and understand what I did and then ‘cause Tommy’s handy he said ok lets do this so we came and he saw the inside of the house you can see pictures on the wall there of how it looked and he said ok let’s get this house so I went back to Mr. Gaddy and said we have to find a lawyer and he said oh I don’t want a lawyer oh just have that…oh no no we have to have a lawyer Mr. Gaddy so his lawyer was our lawyer we paid for his lawyer and he raised the price his wife thought it was not enough so that’s how it got to $4,000.00 and at that time even though $4,000.00 doesn’t sound like a lot my parents had just passed I spent a lot of money on medical bills (um) really wasn’t saving money at that time I was a spender you know I loved shopping um never thought of buying a house it was something very quick that I had done (um) but we managed he let me pay it off a little bit at a time and we got this house it took us a year to do the demolition we did our own demolition ah every Saturday we would come up and we got it took us at least a year to get to the point where we had a space a part of the house where we could live we had a kitchen that consisted of a hot stove a hot plate and one of my mother’s friends gave us a refrigerator and that was about it you know we lived very raw here it took a while it took about 7 or 8 years for at least to get some type of a kitchen and to do you know it took us eight years to do all this work 8 – 9 years to do 5 years to strip all the wood (um) it was a task it was a task but you have to have the vision that … my favorite bible verse is faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen so being involved with the church at that time and just believed that it would be such a great thing it would be much bigger thing that we could not see what was the original question?
Flowers: I think we started out with you just telling me about yourself um ah you raised a lot of um interesting points (um) in terms of talking about the housing and or the purchase of the house (um) and its making me think to your work at Abyssinian with the Abyssinian Development Corporation um also you touched on (um) when you were talking about your schooling you talked about (um) going to afterschool programs and I know that you started youth programs when um I think in the 1980s if I remember can you just talk a little about what inspired you to start the youth programs in the community what inspired you to you know become more involved with the church and become involved with their development corporation and um eventually I want to move to talk about your work at Thurgood Marshall as well
Johnson: um I think that we as a people when we get to a certain professional level particularly in the north we tend to move out of the communities that we grew up in and move to other communities that Quote unquote give us better service or give us (ah) sort of a status quo (um) and Harlem became what it did what it became in the 1970s because a lot of us baby boomers who came out of college in the late 1960s early 1970s a lot of us didn’t return to our neighborhoods because we were elevated professionally and economically as our parents wanted us to be so we went to the high rises downtown or bought the condos went out to suburbia whatever you know we didn’t come back to our communities and I always remember our friends who graduated and lived down south they couldn’t do that because of the segregation laws were relegated to go back to their communities but by going back and using their skills and experience their communities were uplifted because there was a very diverse community of occupations and people whereas in Harlem it became kind of lopsided because we all moved out those of us who could afford it we moved other places we didn’t come back and invest in our community we didn’t give back what our community gave to us if it was not for Adam Clayton Reverend Adam Clayton Powell developing legislation that developed the poverty programs of the 1960s HARYOU ACT which was the poverty that’s what taught me to type that’s what taught me …that’s what got me off the streets and (um) we didn’t I’m trying to think I’ve lost my thought there those opportunities (ah ) disappeared in the late 1970s or mid 1970s (um) for young people it just disappeared and so coming back to Harlem for me was I wanted to give back what they gave to me I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for my church and if it wasn’t for mother and father believing in me and if it wasn’t for a community that helped my parents raise me which doesn’t exist now I mean you could have a tenant living next to you for two months and before you know it someone else is in there and that apartment has been rented 6 or 7 times in a year that didn’t happen you didn’t see that when I was growing up aunt sally was in that apartment for 30 years 25 years I mean people just didn’t come and go people were always there until they died or something but not like this (ah) revolving door (laughing) it was not a revolving door a community you know so I felt that I’ve always had some type of social consciousness it just didn’t come to my awareness until I was like in my 20s I don’t know what brought it to my awareness I mean my mother was always taking acre of everybody else’s children and stuff you know so I knew we always had to share and give back but I really wanted to give back to the community in some way and so I kinda started my awareness kinda started after my mother’s funeral my father died first and then my mother and you know its tradition in the Baptist church I don’t know if your church does it but we leave flowers on the pulpit that Sunday after the funeral and so it was my thought that I was gonna go and drop those flowers off and I didn’t want to go back to the church at all
Flowers: and your father and mother were both members of Abyssinian?
Johnson: no my father was not, my father never went to church if I was performing or
Flowers: was his funeral at Abyssinian?
Johnson: no neither was my mothers and that’s because I did really know the connection I had not been involved in the church remember I went away to college in 1965 and my parents died in the 1980s so I had no connection with the church or anything I was so glad to get away from the church because as a child I didn’t really embrace the church and want to go I went because I had to go and so it was a sense of control I ain’t going to church I ant getting up early in the morning I don’t wanna hear someone yelling brimfire I didn’t want to hear it I did not get involved back in the church until my parents got sick and my mother wanted to go to church and she needed me to take her and that’s how I started going back to church and then when she passed I took those flowers like a good Baptist child but I was going to get the hell out of dodge and I was standing somewhere I can’t remember like in the hallway that doesn’t exist now because we remodeled the church and Reverend Butts called my name and I’m saying I didn’t turn around at first because I haven’t been here in a while like 10 or 15 years and someone they must be talking to some other Sandra because they said Sandra and I knew no one who really knows me calls me Sandra its Sandye
Flowers: Is that your name?
Johnson: Sandra is my official name
Flowers: I never knew that
Johnson: its on my birth certificate its what my mother and father named me I heard this name so I finally turned around and he said could you come here? So I said thank you for doing my parents’ funeral … he said so what do you do I said I’m a teacher he says well you know I’m trying to do this afterschool program at the church would you be interested in helping me now why he asked me I do not know so I said uh oh my God you know I’m a good Baptist child so I cant say no to a minister so what I thought is I said ok I’ll say yes and I’ll go to one meeting but that would be it you wouldn’t see me no more at least I tried well that didn’t happen I went to the meeting listened to what people said there was a really great groups of people at this meeting and so I really felt comfortable and I said oh this is not so bad so not only did I do work volunteer for the afterschool program I coordinated it and that was the beginning of the beginning of the beginning and (um) I coordinated that for several years and then one day Reverend Butts called me at the job and said Sandra I would like you to be in on this committee I don’t know if he used the word committee or board I thought he was talking about a church club
Flowers: oh
Johnson: so I said oh ok so I went to the meeting and it was the founding board members for Abyssinian Development Corporation it was no church meeting church club this was really bigger I didn’t now what I was getting myself into
Flowers: what year was that?
Johnson: 1987 (ah) so I said wow this is an organization that really wants to make an impact on Harlem and really raise the quality of life for people so I said that sounds really good so ok imma do this and I’ve been involved with Abyssinian since we were incorporated in 1989 so we are celebrating their 20 …89 …yeah so we are celebrating out 25th anniversary next year and it’s a wonderful organization (um) it was developed initially out of the need for affordable housing for not just affordable but affordable and quality housing for residents of Harlem and what spurred the development of that was that one day Reverend Butts walked up and down 138th street and 138th street was blighted it was a lot of abandoned houses empty lots you would see crack needles all over the street it was horrible here there was this prestigious socially active church of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. sitting in the midst of this garbage not doing anything about it
Flowers: How long had he been at the church when he decided to develop to develop to create Abyssinian Development Corporation?
Johnson: How long had who been?
Flowers: (ah) Reverend Butts
Johnson: Reverend Butts came to the church in about 1971 or 1972 as a intern from (um) Union Theological (um) Seminary and he’s been there for almost 40 years (um) and he came under the tutelage of (um) Reverend Dr. Samuel D. Proctor and so (um) he Reverend Proctor was still there as the Executive as the head pastor when this (yawns) oh God when this revelation came about as far as that we needed to get involved more in the community (um) and so he gathered (ah) I would say about 15 or 17 church members all coming from different walks of life lawyers teachers (um) lawyers teachers I’m just going around the table (um) professors (um) civil service workers and he selected us and we started Abyssinian Development Corporation (um) prior to Abyssinian being started they had developed another board called the Abyssinian Housing Development Fund and that board was the one that oversaw our first housing project which is a Senior Citizens housing on 131st between lenox and fifth and what was unique about that senior citizen housing residence is that it provided onsite services for senior citizens recreational social medical and not medical so to speak that there’s a doctor there but helping people keep their appointments they had a social worker there (um) and a beautiful building right on 131st between lenox and fifth and I remember that the block again was infested with crime and crack houses and we organized the tenants association of the block to try to you know change the environment which we did we worked with the police department (um) it was kind of dangerous at one point because the drug dealers used to come into our meetings to see who was there and they would intimidate some of the I mean we didn’t live on the block but the tenants who came to the meetings did and it was kind of intimidating but (um) we (ah) we persisted and prevailed and really turned that block around (ah) and developed some condominiums directly across the street (ah) from the houses but anyway the houses the senior citizen housing was the first and then came our shelter for displaced families in Harlem and then came our Headstart Center and then came the schools but within that time we had many different projects in Harlem we (ah) did the Pathmark we also did the (ah) H&M where H&M is we did that whole strip where the we call it the Harlem Center project from H&M all the way to Lenox Avenue and across to 126th street where Planet Fitness is we did that whole development (um) we have many pockets of affordable housing (ah) throughout Harlem we’ve developed almost 1,400 affordable housing units (um) in Harlem marketed over 100 and sold and renovated over 100 Brownstones (um) and (um) what else also at one point did economic development where we actually had a Central Harlem (clears throat) local development corporation as a subsidiary of ADC that actually gave small business loans to (um) businesses who needed to either enhance or (yawns) develop a more quality (ah) environment for their business yup
Flowers: now it sounded like to me a couple of second a couple of seconds ago that you said schools as in plural
Johnson: yeah
Flowers: were there more schools more than Thurgood Marshall?
Johnson: well we had more than one Thurgood Marshall program we have our elementary school we have our middle school and we have our high school and they are seen as three separate entities
Flowers: Ahh elementary middle and high school
Johnson: then we have three headstart centers and now we’ve even reached outside and worked with Bread and Roses which is a failing high school that we’re trying to help and a school in the Bronx that the Board of Education gave Abyssinian Development Corporation a contract to provide after school services
Flowers: Can you take a step back and tell me how Thurgood Marshall Academy started.
Johnson: ah well Thurgood Marshall Academy started in 1993 and in 1992 a proposal came out from New Visions for Public Schools in conjunction with the Board of Ed(ucation) a proposal for anyone to develop a public school that could deliver quality educational services that could impact student performance and this came out of the Annenberg money Annenberg was a man who left billions and billions of dollars to public education and New Visions for Public School was the agency that was formed as the fiduciary to distribute this funds (um) so (um) Reverend Butts got the proposal across his desk one Sunday someone sent it to him and he felt that if our community was going to change for the better that even though we put better housing and have economic development that it would not persist if we did not have a highly educated community and looking at the quality of schools at that time which was not great and with parents sending their children outside of the community for better schools he felt that parents in our community should have a choice of good schools where they lived and if they choose to send their children outside of the community then it should be a choice and not a forced option and so (ah) he asked for volunteers for (ah) to write the proposal to start Thurgood Marshall Academy so myself and about 6 other church members go together (ah) and we wrote the proposal for Thurgood Marshall Academy submitted the application there was about 300 organizations that had submitted applications but only 12 schools only 12 applications would be chosen and we were 1 of 12 that were chosen to start the first smaller public learning communities in New York City
Flowers: How many of those applications do you know were targeted towards Harlem?
Johnson: I’m I don’t know
Flowers: ok
Johnson: I don’t know because it was opened up to the whole city so it wasn’t targeted for a community any community Harlem could’ve had a thousand applications it depends upon who wanted to submit an application and go through that application (ah) process (um) but at that time most of the schools in New York City were in the thousands as far as population this was the first wave of schools being less than 600 we could not go more than 600 students and people looked at that and didn’t think of us what kind of school is that only 600 kids is that a real school they don’t work hard ah they don’t have the problems that we have with 2,000 students blah blah balse blah blah but we were one of the first 12 and I don’t know how many of those 12 still exist some of them have closed (ah) did not survive (ah) when we started it was just 7 of us we had input into the hiring of the Principal and staff you know we participated in the interviews and everything
Flowers: when you say 7 of us who is the seven? Not who specifically but the committee was a committee of 7?
Johnson: Seven planning committee from the church they were all church members
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and they weren’t all educators some were one was a speech pathologist another was the head of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (um) and then most of us though we re teachers and (um) so we submitted the proposal in 1992 it was accepted and the school opened up in 1993 and whatever could go wrong with the school for the first 3 years went wrong nobody who was on the planning committee worked in the school we just had (um) we were able to input our opinions on who should be hired and so for the first 3 years there were 3 principals (um) there because we were it was a new idea as far as this smaller school population and a faith based institution being involved in education we were not warmly received in the community at that time the structure was (um) there was a superintendent and then there was community school boards and neither of them and I don’t know whether it was just faith based or whether it was just Reverend Butts because he was just very vocal at that time he had begun to become a voice of political social activism (um) but we did not get the support that we would need from the district to the point that one year they didn’t even give us enough desks we had to rent desks in order for our kids to have a place to study so because they didn’t support it and because it was felt they just dumped kids on our school in the school not that we didn’t want to take challenged kids but you don’t want to have school with all challenged kids it has to be a good balance so that there’s a good role model so that they can bounce off of each other and people I guess you need to know how to work partnerships partnerships are great but you have to know how to work them and massage them so that the end goal is met and I don’t think the principals at that time they were good principals but I don’t think they knew about how to really utilize the partnerships and resources in Harlem in order to make the school a productive and effective school
Flowers: Were they from Harlem?
Johnson: (um) one was from Harlem but all of them had worked in Harlem at one point or another
Flowers: Had they all been teachers before assuming he Principalship?
Johnson: they well they yes one was already a principal that switched to become the principal of Thurgood Marshall one was a teacher who became the principal and one was an assistant principal who became a principal it was all different levels of experience they were not new or brand new mature women they weren’t in their 20s you know (ah) they were in their 30s or 40s I don’t remember you know but every year for the first 3 years the school got worse you know whatever could go wrong went wrong we were treated like step children taking up space in someone else’s school building (um)
Flowers: How did you guys come to use the space in 136?
Johnson: Board of Ed(ucation)
Flowers: Board of Ed assigned it?
Johnson: um hmm well we were first in the Choir Academy building and then we could not expand anymore in there and so the first year we were in the Choir Academy in the Choir Academy building in the second year we moved to IS 136 ok so the first principal was in Choir Academy, the second principal was at 136 and the third principal was at 136 and two Chancellors had come to see the school because Reverend Butts is very well very highly respected you know and thought of and so they didn’t just come down and shut us down but they came to see the school and they said it was the worse school they had ever seen he didn’t know how it was even existing I mean student performance decreased there was a high (ah) rate of (ah) behavior incidents that generated a the establishment of a scanning station in the school where kids had to through scanning machines
Flowers: metal detectors?
Johnson: yeah metal detectors (um) it just was the the kids called the school a bootleg school you know (um) they were supposed to wear uniforms they didn’t wear uniforms (um) there was graffiti all over the I mean it was just not an environment (um) the planning committee for reasons which I will not share with you in this interview were not was not involved in the first year (um) but then became involved again in the second year and really did some afterschool training and tried to you know work with teachers but if you’re not there during the day you know it doesn’t so anyway it was supposed to close we knew we heard it through the grapevine that they were going to close it and Reverend Butts I cant remember the Chancellor we’ve been through so many chancellors (um) I wanna say it was Rudy Crew it was either Rudy Crew or what (inaudible) …I cant remember anyway he asked for one more chance and that’s when he asked me to take over the school and I said are you crazy I absolutely do not want to be an administrator I did not I didn’t go to school to become a principal
Flowers: so you were still at Montague at that time?
Johnson: yeah umm hmm
Flowers: and that’s a public school?
Johnson: umm hmm it’s a public school its for severely emotionally handicapped kids it’s a very unique program it was a collaboration with Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services and the Board of Ed(ucation) to provide onsite psychiatric therapeutic services to public school students so our school was only 30 students a psychiatrist was on site we had 3 psychiatric social workers classrooms were no more than 12 it was all year round school (ah) ‘cause a lot of the kids were on psychotropic medication so there was a doctor I mean it was very well our kids really did well if they could stay in the program ‘cause it was so nurturing and I mean we did everything we could for those kids you know to even paying rents sometimes the agency stepped in so I really had an experience of only working in settings like this for 28 years I never worked in regular ed(ucation) I only worked in special ed(ucation) so anyway I said are you kidding? I didn’t go to school to become a principal ahh I don’t wanna do it now just to step back while I was at Columbia you had to choose an elective so I saw all the “other” people (um) taking administration courses so I said well I guess I should take the administration courses too so I did I took enough to get my license to become a its called an SAS they changed the title now but the SAS qualifies you to become a building principal you cannot be a superintendent with a SAS you need a DAS a district something administrative supervisor its what I did and I got my credits but I never filed for the license I never ever filed to get the license so when he asked me and I said no um um I don’t want to do it but its really Deidre a divine destiny ‘cause I don’t know why I took those administration courses I never in my mind thought I would because I’m not a paper person I’ve become one but I was never I like a more hands on (ah) student student not being in a office (um) so I quickly said no he kept asking
Flowers: How many times did he ask?
Johnson: oh my god I can’t even remember every time I saw him I mean I think he started in like March and I don’t think and I think I reconsidered in May I felt that again we can complain about the education that’s going on in our communities but we don’t do anything about it and I felt that if it was gonna change then we had to be part of the change we always let outside people come in and try to fix things for our community we need to fix it ourselves and so I said ok I talked to Tommy (her husband) the kids our children that were living with us at that time and (um) ‘cause I said if I do it you know how I am its 100 percent its like you know you’re going to have to take a back burner he said “go for it” so I told Reverend Butts I said ok I’m gonna try it I said and even if I fail it will not be a failure to me because the failure is not trying so they had to rush and get my license submitted they had to talk to the commissioner and rush it through it usually takes like 6 months for filing and paperwork and stuff I think I got it in an expedited lest say an expedited amount of time and so June 30th I was a special education teacher with 30 students never having any administrative experience and on July 1st I was the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy
Flowers: and this was 1996?
Johnson: yes and I did something very interesting I have knew the teachers ‘cause I had volunteered there at their afterschool I didn’t get rid of any of the teachers ‘cause usually there’s three things they usually do with failing schools they get rid of the principal they get rid of the teachers and they change the name of the school I didn’t do any I only did two of I only did one of those 3 things happened and that was leadership change I met with the teachers and I said now I’ve been involved volunteering with you guys and I know what some of the issues are I said (um) so I’m not gonna get rid I’m not going to excess anyone I said because I don’t think you’ve had the support or the resources you really needed to be effective in the classroom so we are gonna work hard this summer getting all the re(sources) whatever we need to make sure the school is gonna be one of the top schools and you have to trust me that I’m gonna do my best to make sure that happens and they kinda believed in me because I used to e able to get certain things for them when I was volunteering that they needed for their classrooms just by asking church members or getting other resources from people I knew and (um) so we worked very hard that summer we looked at the curriculum got rid of all the graffiti we had paint teams we went to 125th street bought these plants and motivational posters we white washed the school cleaned it up scrubbed the desks (um)
Flowers: how many floors were you on at that time?
Johnson: two
Flowers: two, ok
Johnson: put carpet I put like throw rugs I had a office I made sure there was a couch in there and just did everything we could to make it the most pleasant environment that kids could be in an educational setting did a lot of outreach during the summer told parents your child had to wear a uniform and if you didn’t have the money we would get it for you we w(ouldn’t) I’m not gonna give you the money we’re gonna buy it for you and (um) there was no excuse a white shirt black pants black skirt and a school sweater that’s all we asked and we worked hard the teachers believed that it was going to happen and we (all) I remember standing in front of the students that day in the auditorium
Flowers: the first day of school?
Johnson: umm hmm I just told them point blank you know you have a bad rep but I know you are not what the rep is about this school this could be a great school but it cant be a great school just because I said it’s a great school you all have to demonstrate that it can be great that you want to be great that I know you can be great ad all the staff just lined up in front together like a unit like a … and we just said what our expectations were what would not be tolerated didn’t matter what level you read on but your performing that’s where you are now but this is where you are going to be when you leave us and I cant tell you we started to see changes within the same month
Flowers: How many students did you have when you first started?
Johnson: About 300
Flowers: and when you left how many students were there?
Johnson: about 550 we got the scanning ah metal detectors removed in 2 years because the behavior incidents went down really low (um) the students became more socially responsible I think it was very significant that I lived in the neighborhood ‘cause I told them I know what corner you should be standing on and I know what corner you should not be standing on and if I see you on that corner that you’re not standing on I’m coming I’m going to be in your Kool-Aid so we made it known that our rules were not just within the walls it was in the community and made a conscious effort to hire teachers that lived in the community so that about 85% of our teachers lived in the community they were our neighbors so that we would see (um) we would see our parents in the nail salon I could have while I’m getting my hair weaved I could have we could have a parent conference there and it would be on a much different level because I’m not someone who just comes in the community then leaves at the end of the day I understand the dynamics the social I hear the gun shots too I know you know the issues that our community had as you know ‘cause I live her too I’m your neighbor and so the level of communication (um) was on a different level it was the intimidation was not there (um) parents share some very intimate pieces of their life with me that they needed help with once I help them they could be better parents for their children (um) and so that helped us to really get to improve the student performance at our school I think the very in my first graduating class we were like at 90% above grade level you now we’ve always had challenges with our middle school middle school is tough
Flowers: that’s 6, 7 and 8th?
Johnson: oh yes middle school is real tough ‘cause based on the developmental period we needed more resources but what was great about our school was that 90 % of our middle school students stay for high school so if we didn’t get it right on middle school we got it right in high school
Flowers: so did the school the school did not start as a grade school it started at the middle school level then went to a high school and then you added the lower school?
Johnson: Yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: we first had the head start center then we started the middle school going up to high school but we realized that getting the kids just in 6th grade it was already too late
Flowers: right
Johnson: so in 2004 we decided to develop the elementary school and right now as I left when I the year I retired no 2010 was the first year that we got a cohort of students from the elementary school to the Junior High and so this year is the first year they are now in high school so we are really tracking these students to see what the longitudinal impact of being in a pipeline receiving the same services from the same organization and the same school has on the performance of the students
Flowers: so are your kids your kids are the students from Thurgood Marshall Academy graduating from high school are they going on to college?
Johnson: 90% of our kids go on to college but everybody has a plan whether its college or career (um) and our persistence rate meaning those who (um) have passed through at least the first year of college cause that’s the highest drop out rate in our last study was about 83%
Flowers: so about 83% of the students that went to college made it through their first year
Johnson: yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and what I’m doing now is another give back is when I retired I started cause I know all the graduating classes all of them and I decided to start an alumni association ‘cause I don’t think there are strong alumni there are more the stronger alumni associations exist in the south urban schools do not have other than having a dance they do not have strong (um) alumni associations so my friend told me who’s a lawyer said that the legal defense legal aid society has a program called community development project where they help organizations get their 501c(3) not for profit status for free so I gathered some of my alumni because they’re all talking about getting together but they were talking about getting together for a party so I got them together about 10 of them all from different years and told them about my idea for an alumni association they loved it it took a while for them to get it that it wasn’t Dr. Johnson’s organization it was theirs and they had to run it organize the meetings it took about a year and a half to get to that point but they have really taken it on I mean really taken it on where to the point they actually (ah) have a Facebook page and are on Instagram they’ve given scholarships the last two years that the alumni has donated (um) and this year we started our first program called Senior Saturdays where alumni I’m there with them and another teacher is volun(teering) is helping me with it (ah) but their doing (ah) Senior Saturdays which is a program that helps the current seniors at Thurgood Marshall develop their college essays so our first part of it is college essays right college essays then we’re going to do scholarships and resumes and then survival skills and
Flowers: survival skills for college?
Johnson: um hmm or career
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and the program goes from November until May and this is the first year we are doing it
Flowers: so you are still active with Thurgood Marshall even though you are “retired”? (laughs)
Johnson: ah yeah because the work doesn’t stop when they graduate from high school it doesn’t stop when they graduate from college a lot of these students do not have (um) strong family situations some come from dysfunctional families (um) and so our school has become the family I mean we have actually taken kids to college because their parents couldn’t we have actually raised money there was one young lady who was accepted to (um) let me get it right Vassar and with the financial aid package was missing a couple of thousand and we were able to raise the money in order for her to fill that gap so that she could go and figure it out later and not miss that opportunity (ah) we have done home visits we have we’ve done whatever it takes to make sure that that child has as many options when they graduate from college we also have a very strong wellness program where we actually have a suite of doctors offices in our school that’s sponsored by (um) Columbia Presbyterian and we have a Nurse Practitioner who can give full physical exams immunizations we have a strong (um) sex ed(ucation) program there have been very few pregnancies in our school if they are pregnant they I guess I don’t know about it because they’ve made a decision on what to do with that state (um) that we are not privy to I just know that I don’t see many pregnant girls in our school at all (ah) I think in the 16 years I was there I could probably tell you maybe I know of about maybe 20
Flowers: Now how long has that program been in the school? I was there on Saturday (November 23rd) for a meeting all day and I actually got a quick tour of that medical suite. How long has that program been in the school?
Johnson: since when I came it started when I came
Flowers: ok
Johnson: in 1996, what program were you there for on Saturday?
Flowers: It was a Delta meeting, (laughs)
Johnson: oh yeah no I know they had the meeting there
Flowers: yeah we had the Delta meeting, as a matter of fact I met the principal
Johnson: in fact I started that they (ah) I forgot who was it when I was there they used to meet in the library I don’t know if you all still meet in the library but (ah) our librarian
Flowers: Muneerah?
Johnson: our librarian
Flowers: Muneerah
Johnson: ah yes it was (um) is our librarian and she asked could the Deltas (meet) sure it don’t matter
Flowers: and (um) Gloria Mabry who’s the (um) she’s the Physician’s Assistant
Johnson: right she’s a Delta too
Flowers: Is there a Zina Mingo? Is she working there?
Johnson: yeah umm hmm
Flowers: they were all there and we were there all day
Johnson: And there’s another one there a Delta … Epps
Flowers: Tiese?
Johnson: yes
Flowers: Tiese yes ok
Johnson: um hmm um hmm
Flowers: ok so we’ve talked for quite a bit of time here (um)
Johnson: Did I meet my 2 hours?
Flowers: I I think we’re almost to the two hours what I do want to ask this is I guess kind of ending question (um) and this could go on for hours I guess from your youth in Harlem to now your retirement (um) living in basically on the same block or where you grew up (um) in the same area where you grew up what are some of the changes that you’ve seen across all of that time in Harlem good bad ugly how would you sum it up what do you think of it and where do you think Harlem as a community is going?
Johnson: hmm (silence) well the changes that I’ve seen are all relegated to the gentrification process that probably started kinda subtly in the 1980s like the late 1980s no I want to say 1990s in the 1990s so what changes more police presence in the community when other people were moving in to our community I’ve seen the infusion of businesses that I used to have to go downtown to shop I mean they’re building a Macy’s on 125th street Whole Foods is coming to Lenox Avenue we have
Flowers: I know about the Whole Foods but not the Macy’s
Johnson: yes that’s the new thing
Flowers: that could be a problem (laughs)
Johnson: the Macy’s (um) we have a Westin we’ve never had a major hotel chain in Harlem
Flowers: Aloft
Johnson: we have Westin Aloft is part of the Westin we now have a major movie theatre which we didn’t have for years we always had to go downtown somewhere when I grew up
Flowers: 86th street
Johnson: yeah when I grew up we had the RKO Alhambra right there on 7th Avenue between 125th and 126th where the bowling alley is and where that restaurant used to be ah that used to be the RKO Alhambra they took down the marquee and everything but is used to be our movie theatre we had 2 movie theaters
Flowers: I didn’t know it was a movie theater
Johnson: that was the RKO Alhambra and around the corner between 7th and 8th you still see the marquee it used to be the Lowes theater its where there’s a lot of people selling stuff but you’ll see the marquee is in the middle of the block near the traffic light that’s in the middle of the block
Flowers: right right is that the one was that still the Victoria 105?
Johnson: yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: um hmm but that was a Lowes theater (um) I’ve seen the decline of black businesses in Harlem and an infusion of major chains and restaurants that wouldn’t would never have thought of coming to Harlem but I think 9/11 changed all of that because on 9/11 there were all kinda people up here in Harlem because it appeared to be the safest place people were walking through our community dazed but it was a safe place and then people really started moving uptown because they left downtown no one wanted to live downtown anymore Harlem was perfect we’re 5 minutes from Jersey 5 minutes from Queens across the Triborough (ah) still can get downtown near the 1,2,3,A, B I mean all (ah) major transportation so there started to be an infusion of people from diverse backgrounds (um) there seemed to be an infusion of businesses that would never ever come up here I mean Joe’s Crab Shack I mean that’s a suburbia restaurant
Flowers: (laughing) it certainly is
Johnson: Joe’s Carb Shack on 8th Avenue Red Lobster
Flowers: on 125th
Johnson: on 125th those people usually don’t even build a restaurant unless there’s a parking lot next to it there’s no parking lot next to these ‘cause people walk to these restaurants its in an urban area (um) the infusion of charter schools which that’s a whole ‘nother 12 hour interview (ah) I’ll just say (ah) something to think about is why does Harlem have the most charter schools per square mile than any other community in the United States it’s a thought (um) I have seen the decline of respect for public education (um) that its inferior when our mayor has gone to public school
Flowers: Mayor elect or Bloomberg?
Johnson: Bloomberg
Flowers: ok
Johnson: you know when many Barbara Streisand (ah) I think she went to (um) if I’m not mistake LaGuardia I mean there’s a lot of very successful people that graduated and did well with a public education and its just not respected as it was when I was growing up affordable housing doesn’t exist (ah) Abyssinian Development Corporation I think is only one of the major community organizations that is making sure that a lot of our residents are not displaced and one (ah) good example of that is our our our taking over Ennis House on 7th Avenue Between 123rd and 124th where the landlord walked away from it wholes in the walls rat infested lots of problems (ah) and tenants came to us to help them develop a strong tenet’s association and to help redevelop the building you know we’re having a little issues we were caught in the recession and so we’re at a stalemate with the new building we were building on 123rd street but we’ll resolve it
Flowers: 123rd and what?
Johnson: 123rd between 7th and 8th
Flowers: ok
Johnson: you know its half built but there are many other construction sites that you see where the construction was
Flowers: halted
Johnson: halted you know for many reasons (um) but clearly that’s an example that had we not gotten involved in that that building might have become an example of gentrification the building becoming just a high market rental building and now its really a Section 8 building and so that’s a very big difference you know its not a money maker for us its (ah) a way that (ah) we provide housing and so that gentrification doesn’t displace our residents ah what else do I see now the pros are I like that I don’t have to go across the bridge or downtown to eat a Red Lobster or Joe’s Crab Shack yeah I like the fact that yeah Whole Foods is coming ‘cause our community likes to eat healthy too and so now we’re getting more healthy alternatives you know for us to choose from (ah) yeah I like it that I don’t have to 86th street anymore that I can walk from my house to go to the theater I like all of those things I like that the block that my house is on I don’t see crack houses anymore and most of the owners in my block live in their houses and even though its diverse you know we tend to be a good community on our block you know I love my block you know I love my block I mean this is a great block to live on (um) I guess that’s what stands out in my mind the most and each of those is its own separate interview as to why those pros and cons exist (um) but that’s about it I would never live anywhere else but Harlem I think Harlem to me is a community and a family when you walk down the street there’s never I can never get to my destination without someone saying hello someone may not know you but will always say hello I lived on 86th street nobody said hello to me they were probably wondering why I was down there as a matter of fact when we were growing up we you know there was always this thing across 110th street was always better so it was always my dream to live downtown and I did live downtown we had a duplex apartment on 87th street off Central Park it was the worst experience of my life I couldn’t wait to get back to Harlem I came home one day the super was cleaning my door I said why are you cleaning the door he said I’m cleaning the blood off because your neighbors husband tried to (ah ah) knock the a bottle over his wife’s head and she tried to get to you to get some help and left blood all over your door and then one day the duplex had a skylight I’m sleeping and the police broke through my skylight to raid the wrong apartment they were trying to raid the other apartment that was a drug place I said I ain’t move down here to pay all this rent for this crap and so I went to a Mitchell Lama building on 96th street for a long time and then when my husband started talking about Queens that’s what got me back to Harlem and I love it I would never live my husband really wants to move down south I told him to go I would never leave Harlem there is no place that has the cultural diversity and history that Harlem has of our people plus New York I would never leave it has mass transportation is it perfect no but it gets you to from point A to B wherever you want to go 24 hours a day and it has the best health institutions (um) the best everything you know and yeah its not perfect but no place is perfect and Harlem to me I would never live anywhere else I love Harlem I breath Harlem I would never leave
Flowers: One final question (um) would you mind telling me what year you were born?
Johnson: No I’m glad to tell you because there are some people who cant tell you what year they were born because they’re dead
Flowers: oh this is true
Johnson: I was born in 1947
Flowers: 1947 ok
Johnson: So I’m going to be 66 in December
Flowers: December 11th I know that’s the day I start my new job (laughs)
Johnson: yes congratulations
Flowers: ok thank you Ms. J for helping me out with this, I will be in touch I will transcribe all of this and then be in touch with the next steps as we go through the ending of the semester
Johnson: ok
Flowers: Thank you

All Files

Title

Sandye Poitier Johnson Oral History

Description

Harlem History 1950s-2013

Creator

Johnson, Sandye Poitier

Date

2013-11-25

Contributor

Flowers, Deidre B.

Rights

Transcript unapproved

Format

.mp3

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Coverage

1950s-2013

Interviewer

Flowers, Deidre B.

Interviewee

Johnson, Sandye Poitier

Location

Sandye Poitier Johnson residence, Harlem, NY

Transcription

Flowers: Good evening this is Deidre Flowers interviewing Dr. Sandye Poitier Johnson on the evening of November 25, 2013 in her home located at 273 West 132nd Street. Good evening Dr. Johnson, I’d like to thank you first for agreeing to assist me with my class project and I would like to open up and talk about your life Your life here in Harlem your education experience and your educational leadership experience having been the principal at Thurgood Marshall so (um) the first questions that I would like to ask is can you tell me a bit about your upbringing or your growing up here in Harlem.
Johnson: Well (um), I’ve always lived in Harlem and I’m an only child and (uh) grew up on 132nd street where I currently still live and was very poor my parents (ah) never finished school (ah) my father never finished elementary school and I think my mother maybe went to middle school but didn’t finish school after that and (um) they always had a vision of providing for me what could not what they were not provided with when they were growing up so I remember my father really took a business that most people would think would not make much money he shined shoes and (um) one day he used to shine shoes up in Washington Heights in a barber shop and my father was a very … everyone liked my father they always said Charlie is a great guy…and
Flowers: Do you remember the exact location of that … shop?
Johnson: No I just know it was Washington Heights so to me it is in this…what is a very Latino area now I don’t know what it was then…
Flowers: um hmm
Johnson: it could have been much…I think I’m quite sure it was much different probably was a much more Jewish area or white area and yeah it had to be white because when this man met my father (clears throat) and he really liked him he said “Charlie, I want you to come and work for me in my building” so my father came home and told us he was leaving he told my mother he said that he was leaving this steady job at the barbershop to go work in this building my mother said what kind of building is the story they tell me well apparently this man was the CEO of Phillip Morris …
Flowers: hmmm
Johnson: which was big time then and his building was 100 Park Avenue on 41st street and they did not have anyone there to shine shoes so he gave that whole building to my father never charged him any fee for any vendorship in that building and my father actually had appointments made for him to come and shine peoples shoes and it became a very lucrative business for him which helped put me through college gave me my first job provided him with tons of suits from people who didn’t want to wear their suits anymore (um) just really … if I told people his job they would never think it would lead to the lucrative end that it did my mother was a factory worker she was a draper and a draper is a person who puts the finishing touches on a garment so the pleats the buttons any finishing piece and together they gave me whatever they needed to as a very poor family almost to give me all the opportunities so that they know that I would be successful so what does that mean? Well I went to private school …
Flowers: Which one?
Johnson: I went to School on the Hill which is not in existence anymore it was a Lutheran School and its on it was on 141st Street 145th on the corner of Convent Avenue it was a school and then a Lutheran Church its right across the street from Convent Avenue Baptist Church and (um, clears throat) I went there from Kindergarten through (ah) 6th grade and then they couldn’t afford it anymore so (ah) they (ah) researched I don’t know my mother even though they didn’t have paper schooling they were very smart as to garnishing resources or knowing what how to get for me what they wanted for me to achieve so they researched it and the bus driver of ... they guy who drove the school bus that picked me up for the private school
Flowers: mmm hmmm
Johnson: The School on the Hill (um) lived in the Bronx near the Westchester line and so my mother became were friends with them so she negotiated to use his address and send me outside of Harlem to upper Bronx near Westchester to school…
Flowers: What year was that?
Johnson: OK…19…I graduated in 65…4…3…2…1…0… I wanna say either 1959 or 1960
Flowers: Did your parents give a reason why they didn’t want you to go to school in Harlem?
Johnson: Well… the schools in this area were not deemed the best schools back then we’re talking about decades ago and some of the schools were not safe gang related I know that IS 136 when I was growing up (ah) a student was murdered in the building somebody drowned her in the toilet (ah) so my parents were not going to send me to any school in district 5…
Flowers: and …
Johnson: and historically many parents in district 5 did not send their their children to probably more middle schools (ah) in district 5 because there were a lot of students at the school I went to that lived right in Harlem we used to travel together all the time
Flowers: So IS 136 would have been your zoned school?
Johnson: yes, that’s the school on 135th and Edgecombe avenue and it was an all girl school and you could look up the history of it I don’t know much about the history of the school but it was notorious and it was eventually closed (clears throat) I don’t know if that incident led to the closing of it but (uh) my parents were definitely not gonna send me to a place they did not feel that I was gonna be safe particularly because I led a very sheltered life I went to school in the morning my parents always had me in afterschool programs because they worked when the bus came home it was … I [was] dropped off at 6:00, I did homework went to bed I had dancing lessons I had piano lessons so they always had activities for me so I wasn’t a kid who you would see playing on the street
Flowers: Did you have friends in the neighborhood?
Johnson: only friends I had were friends I went to school with (um) I really didn’t have friends in the block I mean I knew people they saw me I saw them if I’d go to the store you know we would kinda see each other all the time and we would say hi I’d know your name and you’d know mine but it wasn’t a relationship where we would go to each others house because we just were not… we didn’t go to the same schools our parents didn’t go to the same church you know my mother was very active in Abyssinian Baptist Church you know and I used to say don’t I get a break I was in school like 7 days a week you know there was some regular school Monday through Friday Saturday was some kinda school whether it was dancing school piano lessons she even sent me when I guess I was in high school at that time she sent me to and a lot of young ladies went there during the 1960s was Ophelia Devore Charm School
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: ‘cause it was just thought of that every young lady had to go to charm school before going to college so that they would know the proper etiquette I hated it but you know…
Flowers: and this was in conjunction with high school, so you went to the charm school as you were in high school?
Johnson: yeah but it wasn’t part of high school
Flowers: it wasn’t part of high school…
Johnson: it was something that we did on the weekend it was something my parents had to pay for and it was housed in the old Ed Sullivan where Ed Sullivan had his TV show downtown I think its in the I wanna say in the early 50s or late 40s on Broadway there is a theatre it used to be called the Ed Sullivan Theatre where his show was filmed and it was an office building adjacent to it or on top of it and that’s where Ophelia Devore …Ophelia Devore is really known she was a model very famous very popular in the 1960s and felt that what she learned as a model needed to be transferred to young ladies coming up so it was very popular to be in her school you know we had different classes on etiquette walking talking conversation clothes my mother I guess I did it in my when I was in 11th grade or 12th grade because (um) my mother used that as a way to know what to buy me to go to college because she had never gone none of her relatives have ever gone none of my fathers family had ever gone I was probably the first person between their two families that went to college
Flowers: So you went straight through all the way through attaining a doctorate first generation college
Johnson: yeah well I didn’t go
Flowers: not saying straight through but when you say that your parents neither of them had college degrees and possibly no one else in their family had them you were the first generation
Johnson: at that time
Flowers: and you went to went through to a terminal degree
Johnson: right it doesn’t mean that nobody in my family has a degree now
Flowers: oh no
Johnson: it means that I was like the first not that I think of it I never thought of it that way but yeah
Flowers: I think of it that way too because neither of my parents had a college degree and um I’m first generation and if I ever finish this PhD (chuckle) I’ll be like you and an only child as well… um ok…so here’s a question you mentioned IS 136 would have been your school are you familiar at all with the case of the Harlem 9?
Johnson: (pause) you’re not talking about recently you’re talking about …
Flowers: back in the mid to late 1950s there were a group of parents who (ah) boycotted 3 Junior High Schools (um) and in the paperwork that I’ve seen they’ve been called Junior High Schools instead of IS or PS 136, 139 and 120
Johnson: no I never heard of them what are they?
Flowers: um so these parents um working in conjunction with Kenneth Clark and his folks at the Northside Center if I’m calling it correctly …
Johnson: yeah on 110th street
Flowers: on 110th street I think that was their last location but I think there were two more in different places in Harlem I think they in different places in Harlem I think they started out at Dunbar apartments and I think they moved further north before they moved down to 110th street (um) they declared that these schools the children in Central Harlem weren’t allowed to go out of their district and I cant remember if it was like district 12 or 13 at the time (um) but based on the curriculum and the overcrowding and the fact that they schools were majority one race and in this case mostly black and Hispanic (um) and the fact that the children couldn’t compete when they got out of these Junior High Schools and when they went to High School or they were failing and they were failing to go to college the parents boycotted the schools saying that they were offering an inferior education and that they were segregated (um) and there was (um) there were several cases in the courts and there was a case that ended up in the I wanna say the children’s court (ah) Justine Wise Polier was the justice who found in support of the parents saying that the schools were inferior and that something needed to be done but it wasn’t it didn’t have like a legal binding…yeah and … a legal binding or set a legal … it set a legal precedent but it wasn’t binding on the Board of Education (um) and the Board of Ed through from the mid 1950s straight up probably until the 1970s and even maybe now (um) parents are still discussing or in some way saying that the education may not be meeting their needs so (um) for this class I was writing on this particular topic when I came into this class and that’s one of the reasons I took the class but (um) as I’m thinking about Harlem and the work that you’ve done in the schools with the Board of Ed (um) wondering how you got from attending a private school to where did you go for high school?
Johnson: I went to Olinville Junior High School on Barnes Avenue in the Bronx and then Evander Childs which was a top high school at that time
Flowers: In the Bronx as well
Johnson: which was about maybe 85% white and only 15% black or hispanic
Flowers: So how is it that your early education affected your I guess career trajectory how did you decide…what about your early education made you decide that education was a course you wanted to pursue
Johnson: well it really wasn’t a course I wanted to pursue I really wanted to be a psychiatrist but I said it took too long who would stay in school all those years to become a doctor (inaudible) then in hindsight I did go to school all those years but at that age I wasn’t geared more to (um) it was not in my mind to ever spend that many years in school so what I did was I majored in psychology and then for my masters I focused on working with the emotionally handicapped because I felt as a psychiatrist you know you help people with emotional disorders and that would put me closer to the field that I wanted to be in but as I got into that field working with the emotionally handicapped I found that most of them were learning disabled that a lot of them had educational issues and wanted to learn more about that because I don’t think you could treat one without the other and so that’s what kinda led me to and I really don’t know I was very young I applied for my doctorate at Columbia like when I was like 22or 23 I was very young
Flowers: So right out of undergrad?
Johnson: no (inaudible) how did I do that I’m just trying to think I think what I did was I cant remember I’m quite sure when I graduated from Morgan (pause) I I cant remember I cant remember whether I went straight to Columbia and then decided to go to Bank Street I cant remember the order ‘cause I’m having I’m a senior now but I do know that the reason I went to Columbia because I felt there was compound issues with kids who were troubled and I got accepted in the doctoral program in my early 20s and I went a year and I was blown away I was like not ready for Columbia’s environment I I coming from an all black historically black school and then and going to a school where most of the students did not look like me I think I was the only person of color in my department I felt whereas an historically black school I don’t wanna say our hands were held but people knew your name you know if you didn’t show up for class you would get a call from the De(an) you know it was more of a nurturing family environment and that’s what I was used to but at Columbia you have to grow up very quickly you were on your own you had to figure it out
Flowers: it was grad school
Johnson: yeah you had to figure it out and not that the advisors didn’t help you or work with you but you had to determine what the work was what the focus was a lot of work you had to do that I wasn’t used to and it completely blew me away and so I went for one year and dropped out for nine
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: ‘cause you had ten years until you loose your admission status
Flowers: Mmm hmm
Johnson: so I went back in my late I wanna say almost like mid 30s and I … ’cause I didn’t wanna loose kinda was older more mature more experienced more looking professionally down the line what I you know what I wanted to do and so I that’s when I got accepted into the (ah) learning disabilities department at (um) Columbia and its very interesting because I was the only teacher of color in the school that I was working in at the time that I applied originally to Columbia and the other teachers in the school had also applied to the doctoral program
Flowers: Is that Montague School?
Johnson: ah huh
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and when they apparently got their letters before I did and they didn’t get in and so they sss when we were having lunch they said we got our letters we didn’t get in well I guess we will have to try again so I said well I didn’t get my letter yet she said oh you know we’re all you know but when I got my letter for acceptance I said oh I got accepted their first questions was how did you get in? how did you get accepted? So I think they said that before they really thought about what they said I dint answer it ‘cause I didn’t want to dignify it with a response
Flowers: What do you think caused their response?
Johnson: that I was a person of color and that they were more qualified than me they were more … they taught longer than me I was young only how could I get in and they were in their 30s and couldn’t get in they had much more experience but I had more I had more professional training I went to Bank Street yeah I’m quite sure it was Bank Street yeah I was at Bank Street and then I went to Columbia
Flowers: Mmm hmm
Johnson: and why I know that is my (um) advisor was Selma Sapier which was a well renowned learning disabilities specialist internationally and she wrote my recommendation plus I didn’t go to a CUNY school I went to Bank Street Bank Street was a very progressive up and coming school top school on education if you went to Bank Street and came out you were known to have a well rounded (um) training as a teacher or a practitioner so they went to City Colleges now I’m not saying that City College’s weren’t great but I know the training I taught as a professor at City College and I’ve had and I went as a student to Bank Street there’s a big difference there’s a big difference in the …
Flowers: At the graduate level
Johnson: yes it’s a big difference a big difference in the students that go there the training that they’re given we had access to the experts you know people Elsbeth Pfieffer (spelling?) was head of the (um) one department and she was the one who started (uh) the (uh) children’s psychiatric (uh) center at Bellevue you know so I was surrounded by the experts you know and I don’t know if that level of training happened at the other colleges the public colleges or CUNY or whatever
Flowers: so take a step back for a minute, can you tell me about your time at Morgan (um) I think you mentioned earlier that your major was psychology what were some of the things that you did when you were on campus? What were some of the extra curricular activities
Johnson: Well you really want to know that do you?
Flowers: Yes (laughs)
Johnson: It wasn’t educational
Flowers: Ah, social (laughs)
Johnson: my first year I had a tough time transitioning first of all I didn’t want to go to Morgan I cried for a month I thought if I called my parents and cried everyday and ran up their telephone bill they would say oh we have to have our baby come home but it didn’t work and I guess after a month I realized I wasn’t going anywhere so I just kinda figured it out and there were a lot of students there from New York so we kinda bonded (ah) really made some good friends that I’m still friends with (inaudible) I mean my best friend Geneva I met you know at college I think that Morgan were the best years of my life besides our child and my husband it was Morgan it really changed me I was at the end of high school I kinda think my middle school hormones didn’t come out until 1tth grade 12th grade and I just like was full blown I was always very studious but I turned the opposite my 11th and 12th year I did a lot of truanting I gave liquor parties I mean I could go on and tell you I was just horrible I mean I was just absolutely I cant tell ya, I don’t know what happened to me I fell in love with this young man who I thought was just a god and ya know he was of course not in school about a year john was about a year or two older than me and me so that’s the only thing I would leave in the morning with my bag and I would just double back home knowing my parents had left and come home and just do ah it was just horrible now what happened was you know the communities at that time were very stable and so there were people in the neighborhood who I considered aunts and uncles you know who really weren’t but because they were our neighbors yeah out of respect you always say “aunt this” “aunt that” well they threw me under the bus you know they would see me come home so they told my parents eventually and I got caught and went on lockdown and I barely I barely got out of high school I think the only reason I don’t even know I think my parents filled out the application I mean I didn’t have any part of the process because the schools were not very helpful at that time
Flowers: umm hmm the high schools?
Johnson: yeah I remember (um) the guidance counselor at my school telling my mother that she thinks I should go to cosmetology school my mother knew that that was not what she had in mind for me and so she said “thank you very much” and she you know again rallied with other parents who were sending ‘cause everyone went to college there was no way nobody would go to college when I was growing up that’s what in this neighborhood everybody applied to college that I knew everybody applied I mean that was the goal so she talked with other parents I guess just filled out the application I didn’t fill out the application I was rebellious at that point you know and I guess I did good on my SATs because I didn’t have any remedial courses because they did have an A, B, and C track the A track was remedial so you could only take like 10 credits 10 or 11 credits plus remedial courses
Flowers: and that…that’s in college?
Johnson: in college
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and I was on the B track which means I could take up to 16 with no remediation and C meant you were gifted I guess and you could take up to 18 to 20 credits you know which meant you could graduate earlier (ah) and so I was really angry with them that they sent me there I didn’t want to go there you know Baltimore Maryland my parents didn’t drive they didn’t have a car but they packed my trunk mailed it I guess and put got on a bus with them greyhound or trailways I mean they made it happen for me (um) I had my little fur stole because that’s what Ophelia Devore said that’s what you needed to have a little fur stole and I had my little gown I mean they did what they had to do I didn’t understand it then and maybe I wasn’t supposed to you know just do it (um) and I was miserable the first month but then I kinds knew I wasn’t coming home and so I had to make it work I made friends and it was the best years of my life my best friendships my best times it just made me a person it really formulated who I am today I doubt if I would be where I am today if I had not gone to Morgan being surrounded by role models that looked like me most of the professors were people of color really took an interest in you (um) a lot of young people that (ah) came from all different places that I had never been with such high aspirations you know once you surround yourself you are who you surround yourself with and I wasn’t surrounding myself with the right people most of the people I hung out with are dead or either in jail
Flowers: mmm
Johnson: none of them went to college none of them survived so I was really hanging
Flowers: these are people from high school?
Johnson: these are people from the neighborhood
Flowers: ok
Johnson: friends that I really from that 11th and 12th year friends of my boyfriend you know and and was the best four years I graduated I think with honors I got the exemplary award from the psychology department (um) although my first year they kicked me off campus because I didn’t have a strong enough average to stay on they didn’t kick me out of school I couldn’t stay on campus and again I was lucky that my parents you know did their resources and the college had housing off campus and I got it with three other young ladies who we became very good friends right down the road maybe it was better because I could be more focused being in a house rather than in a dorm where so much was going on and it worked out and I graduated on time never had to go to summer school (um) and did very well
Flowers: so you were at Morgan in the 1960s?
Johnson: lets think (??) I was a cheerleader I became a cheerleader a freshman class officer or was it sophomore it was one of the years either freshman or sophomore (um) I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) as a matter of fact the day we went on line was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968 (inaudible) you know so a lot of memories a lot of people we still keep in touch it was just really a wonderful wonderful time in my life that I will never forget
Flowers: now while … you were on campus in the midst of the civil rights movement did…
Johnson: no I wasn’t oh yeah I was in Baltimore I mean I was on campus for a year that was from 1964
Flowers: well when I say on campus I really mean just in college what were the students like at Morgan? Did they participate in any of the civil rights movement activities? I know that in 1960 the four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NCA&T) were credited with kind of reinvigorating the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) by staging that what some people call the first but what is really not the first (um) sit in there were several many going back many many years (um) sit-ins that were staged but did the students at Morgan [participate] were they active?
Johnson: yeah we were I wasn’t because my mother told me “look girl I sent you down there” people in the north were not how can I put this? The north student from the north were not as (um) socially conscious I should say not because we weren’t not because we didn’t want to be but because we didn’t the experience we most.. a lot of our friends they had the experience of only drinking at a fountain for “colored” people or sitting in certain seats because they were colored …can you pause?
Stopped 32:04 for Dr. Johnson to take a phone call
Recording #2 - continuation
Flowers: restarting the discussion with Dr. Johnson you were talking about the experience of students from the North versus students from the South
Johnson: Right you know we, I didn’t I could sit anywhere I wanted on the bus, I never had that experience I could go in any store doesn’t mean that maybe I was treated differently but it wasn’t that I couldn’t buy in the store (um) I think more up north people didn’t work in they didn’t hire people of color but it doesn’t mean that people of color couldn’t go into the stores where in the south a lot of my friends had a more (um) different type of experience you know Klu Klux Klan I never I mean I used to see it on TV but it was not up in my back yard you know like some of my friends had or the lynchings or all of that stuff you know my friends from Alabama Birmingham Alabama who were I don’t know if the three young ladies were bombed I don’t I forget which
Flowers: four it was four young ladies and I wanna say that was 1963
Johnson: yeah so people they had all those personal (inaudible) and ours were more detached it was more things we read about and didn’t experience and so my other and father were not (um) told me you know I could not I was not allowed to protest that was it they put their money and they didn’t want me kicked out of school they wanted to make sure I get that degree you know you can protest after but you ain’t gonna protest now I never was part of the protest however there were many protests of students (um) at Morgan State College making the college more aware of (ah) the need for them to become more active the civil rights movement we had a shopping center right up the hill from the school it was called north “something” north manor I cant remember the exact name but they had a beauty salon in there and students used to try to go get their hair done and they would not do students of color’s hair they only do white people’s hair and so they that got the students to protest to shut down the whole shopping center but we protested so no one would go up to the restaurant the movie theatre to the clothing store whatever was up there we would not shop and that’s the major protest that I remember I mean we’ve had a Klu Klux Klan who burned a cross on our campus it was very frightening but the most time was April 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated it (?) was on lockdown I mean you could see smoke I could literally see the smoke from DC the fires that were burning (um) we couldn’t get we wanted to go home but we couldn’t get off campus we didn’t have transportation we couldn’t get downtown to the bus station it was just whoa it was a real horrible time I mean I had a hard time getting home (um) and I’ve never seen that seen riots before or burnings like that
Flowers: so were you coming home because of a particular time or you just wanted to go home?
Johnson: oh no they shut the school down we needed to go home we were trying to get home
Flowers: so when you finally did get home what was Harlem like?
Johnson: more riots (laugh) I left riots to come home to riots (um) (pause) I was inside I remember how my mother and the other of the neighbors went out to the dry cleaners because their clothes was in there and they were getting ready to rob and burn and they drew a like a link a human body link in front ‘cause they said no that’s our clothes why are you you know why are you hurting us its not us you’re really angry at
Flowers: do you know who the owner of the cleaners was?
Johnson: it was a person of color most of the businesses when I grew up in Harlem were businesses of color ‘cause white folks didn’t want didn’t have businesses up here major businesses we had the fish and chip place we had the grocery stores we had the cleaners and we had the beauty parlors so there was a you could truly say that in Harlem the service was provided by people of color I cant say that now the grocery stores are middle eastern (um) the beauty parlors are Dominican or the braiding stores are African (um) the cleaners are Asian (um) even the business my father started shoe shine are not people of color anymore we do not have any service industry or business that we can say we are the major service providers of no more
Flowers: what do you think has caused that shift and where are we if we are not in the service industry anymore?
Johnson: we are the consumers we are the people who spend our money to get those services we don’t provide them (ah) our businesses if we do start don’t last a lot you know they open and they close they are not long lasting why does that happen you know there’s many reasons why economics I think the downfall of our community for me started with the Vietnam war I think a lot of our
Flowers: is that the 1950s
Johnson: no it’s the 1960s
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and I think after the war ended I cant remember what year it was a lot of our young men came home drug addicted or so traumatized by the (ah) ravages of war that they were not socially available (ah) you know to come home to start families to work and then the infusion of crack in our communities which led to a flight of many people from Harlem you know where there was just a bl(inaudible) huge number of empty abandoned buildings or crack houses (um) you know there was that flood of flight to suburbia to queens Jamaica (inaudible) Jamaica oh my god you know that was the flight that was like the better life (um) and Harlem was no longer in its golden age you know (um)
Flowers: When would you say …
Johnson: it was not the place to live if you said I’m going to Harlem oh Harlem you know when we bought our Brownstone we bought our Brownstone for $4,000.00 in the 1980s and we tried to get some of our friends to buy “no we ain’t moving to Harlem are you kidding” all those crack houses there are no services there were no stores I couldn’t even get a tape to rent there were no like Blockbusters (ah) the tapes were being rented in bodegas and grocery stores and in order to rent a tape I would say well do you want my credit card oh no we just need to see your phone bill or electric bill I mean you couldn’t use a credit card anywhere in Harlem nobody would deliver everything was cash and carry (um) there were no services we always had to go outside of the community for a great grocery store great restaurant movie theatre you know Magic Johnson is new for many years we didn’t have a movie theatre in Harlem (um) it was just you were redlined you were redlined in in this neighborhood I always had I don’t know if my husband had as much a vision as I he’s just been great he’s always supported any vision I’ve had even though he didn’t understand where I was going I literally this house was owned by the barber that did my fathers hair and when my husband started talking about moving to Queens I knew that it would either mean divorce or I would have to find something in Harlem and so I came back to my own neighborhood I had my parents had passed at that point as a matter of fact it was a year the same year that my parents passed shortly after my parents passed six months to the day (ah) it was a very traumatic time for me in November I lost my father in February I lost my second child I had a miscarriage I think I was I actually had to deliver I had to deliver which was (uh) and then my mother passed in may so it was a really rough time for me and that’s when I started becoming very involved in the church anyway I had been up here volunteering with the church and my husband said he was moving to queens I said oh no baby Sandye ain’t going to Queens so I came back to my block and I
Flowers: Where were you living at the time? You were in Harlem but where were you before you bought this Brownstone
Johnson: 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and I came back to this block and I don’t know the brownstones weren’t in they were not in in the 1980s I don’t know which is why I think it was a divine destiny you know why I was looking at these buildings I never grew up in a brownstone I didn’t even know what a brownstone looked like inside I I grew up in a tenement house but I knew I didn’t want to go to Queens I was not going to Queens and my Mr. (ah) Teddy ah the barber what was his name I cant remember his name I asked him about any houses for sale on the block all I knew was that it was a house my husband wanted a house this was considered a house and he said you know Mr. Gaddy who owns the candy store on the corner that’s where we used to get our candy as a child all the time he said you know Mr. Gaddy has a house and I don’t think he wants it so I said ok I’ll go and ask him so I did and he said “true I’m walking away from it I’m not paying any taxes the city can have it back” I says well Mr. Gaddy I really would like that house I said I wanna buy it I didn’t even look inside it he just showed me where it was I went and saw the front of the house I went back to the corner I said mr gaddy I want this house I’m gonna buy it can you tell me how much? He said $1,750.00 that’s the first thing he said so I said ok Mr. Gaddy I said I’m going to give you a deposit right now to lock us in so Tommy had given me a check to go pay Con Edison but I didn’t fill it out yet so I filled it out made it to him for $100.00 ‘cause he’s from old school the old school businessmen black businessmen its only about your honor and your word and a handshake and it was good I knew that so I (um) gave him the check and then I called Tommy and told him what I did and hung up the phone so he could just breath and understand what I did and then ‘cause Tommy’s handy he said ok lets do this so we came and he saw the inside of the house you can see pictures on the wall there of how it looked and he said ok let’s get this house so I went back to Mr. Gaddy and said we have to find a lawyer and he said oh I don’t want a lawyer oh just have that…oh no no we have to have a lawyer Mr. Gaddy so his lawyer was our lawyer we paid for his lawyer and he raised the price his wife thought it was not enough so that’s how it got to $4,000.00 and at that time even though $4,000.00 doesn’t sound like a lot my parents had just passed I spent a lot of money on medical bills (um) really wasn’t saving money at that time I was a spender you know I loved shopping um never thought of buying a house it was something very quick that I had done (um) but we managed he let me pay it off a little bit at a time and we got this house it took us a year to do the demolition we did our own demolition ah every Saturday we would come up and we got it took us at least a year to get to the point where we had a space a part of the house where we could live we had a kitchen that consisted of a hot stove a hot plate and one of my mother’s friends gave us a refrigerator and that was about it you know we lived very raw here it took a while it took about 7 or 8 years for at least to get some type of a kitchen and to do you know it took us eight years to do all this work 8 – 9 years to do 5 years to strip all the wood (um) it was a task it was a task but you have to have the vision that … my favorite bible verse is faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen so being involved with the church at that time and just believed that it would be such a great thing it would be much bigger thing that we could not see what was the original question?
Flowers: I think we started out with you just telling me about yourself um ah you raised a lot of um interesting points (um) in terms of talking about the housing and or the purchase of the house (um) and its making me think to your work at Abyssinian with the Abyssinian Development Corporation um also you touched on (um) when you were talking about your schooling you talked about (um) going to afterschool programs and I know that you started youth programs when um I think in the 1980s if I remember can you just talk a little about what inspired you to start the youth programs in the community what inspired you to you know become more involved with the church and become involved with their development corporation and um eventually I want to move to talk about your work at Thurgood Marshall as well
Johnson: um I think that we as a people when we get to a certain professional level particularly in the north we tend to move out of the communities that we grew up in and move to other communities that Quote unquote give us better service or give us (ah) sort of a status quo (um) and Harlem became what it did what it became in the 1970s because a lot of us baby boomers who came out of college in the late 1960s early 1970s a lot of us didn’t return to our neighborhoods because we were elevated professionally and economically as our parents wanted us to be so we went to the high rises downtown or bought the condos went out to suburbia whatever you know we didn’t come back to our communities and I always remember our friends who graduated and lived down south they couldn’t do that because of the segregation laws were relegated to go back to their communities but by going back and using their skills and experience their communities were uplifted because there was a very diverse community of occupations and people whereas in Harlem it became kind of lopsided because we all moved out those of us who could afford it we moved other places we didn’t come back and invest in our community we didn’t give back what our community gave to us if it was not for Adam Clayton Reverend Adam Clayton Powell developing legislation that developed the poverty programs of the 1960s HARYOU ACT which was the poverty that’s what taught me to type that’s what taught me …that’s what got me off the streets and (um) we didn’t I’m trying to think I’ve lost my thought there those opportunities (ah ) disappeared in the late 1970s or mid 1970s (um) for young people it just disappeared and so coming back to Harlem for me was I wanted to give back what they gave to me I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for my church and if it wasn’t for mother and father believing in me and if it wasn’t for a community that helped my parents raise me which doesn’t exist now I mean you could have a tenant living next to you for two months and before you know it someone else is in there and that apartment has been rented 6 or 7 times in a year that didn’t happen you didn’t see that when I was growing up aunt sally was in that apartment for 30 years 25 years I mean people just didn’t come and go people were always there until they died or something but not like this (ah) revolving door (laughing) it was not a revolving door a community you know so I felt that I’ve always had some type of social consciousness it just didn’t come to my awareness until I was like in my 20s I don’t know what brought it to my awareness I mean my mother was always taking acre of everybody else’s children and stuff you know so I knew we always had to share and give back but I really wanted to give back to the community in some way and so I kinda started my awareness kinda started after my mother’s funeral my father died first and then my mother and you know its tradition in the Baptist church I don’t know if your church does it but we leave flowers on the pulpit that Sunday after the funeral and so it was my thought that I was gonna go and drop those flowers off and I didn’t want to go back to the church at all
Flowers: and your father and mother were both members of Abyssinian?
Johnson: no my father was not, my father never went to church if I was performing or
Flowers: was his funeral at Abyssinian?
Johnson: no neither was my mothers and that’s because I did really know the connection I had not been involved in the church remember I went away to college in 1965 and my parents died in the 1980s so I had no connection with the church or anything I was so glad to get away from the church because as a child I didn’t really embrace the church and want to go I went because I had to go and so it was a sense of control I ain’t going to church I ant getting up early in the morning I don’t wanna hear someone yelling brimfire I didn’t want to hear it I did not get involved back in the church until my parents got sick and my mother wanted to go to church and she needed me to take her and that’s how I started going back to church and then when she passed I took those flowers like a good Baptist child but I was going to get the hell out of dodge and I was standing somewhere I can’t remember like in the hallway that doesn’t exist now because we remodeled the church and Reverend Butts called my name and I’m saying I didn’t turn around at first because I haven’t been here in a while like 10 or 15 years and someone they must be talking to some other Sandra because they said Sandra and I knew no one who really knows me calls me Sandra its Sandye
Flowers: Is that your name?
Johnson: Sandra is my official name
Flowers: I never knew that
Johnson: its on my birth certificate its what my mother and father named me I heard this name so I finally turned around and he said could you come here? So I said thank you for doing my parents’ funeral … he said so what do you do I said I’m a teacher he says well you know I’m trying to do this afterschool program at the church would you be interested in helping me now why he asked me I do not know so I said uh oh my God you know I’m a good Baptist child so I cant say no to a minister so what I thought is I said ok I’ll say yes and I’ll go to one meeting but that would be it you wouldn’t see me no more at least I tried well that didn’t happen I went to the meeting listened to what people said there was a really great groups of people at this meeting and so I really felt comfortable and I said oh this is not so bad so not only did I do work volunteer for the afterschool program I coordinated it and that was the beginning of the beginning of the beginning and (um) I coordinated that for several years and then one day Reverend Butts called me at the job and said Sandra I would like you to be in on this committee I don’t know if he used the word committee or board I thought he was talking about a church club
Flowers: oh
Johnson: so I said oh ok so I went to the meeting and it was the founding board members for Abyssinian Development Corporation it was no church meeting church club this was really bigger I didn’t now what I was getting myself into
Flowers: what year was that?
Johnson: 1987 (ah) so I said wow this is an organization that really wants to make an impact on Harlem and really raise the quality of life for people so I said that sounds really good so ok imma do this and I’ve been involved with Abyssinian since we were incorporated in 1989 so we are celebrating their 20 …89 …yeah so we are celebrating out 25th anniversary next year and it’s a wonderful organization (um) it was developed initially out of the need for affordable housing for not just affordable but affordable and quality housing for residents of Harlem and what spurred the development of that was that one day Reverend Butts walked up and down 138th street and 138th street was blighted it was a lot of abandoned houses empty lots you would see crack needles all over the street it was horrible here there was this prestigious socially active church of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. sitting in the midst of this garbage not doing anything about it
Flowers: How long had he been at the church when he decided to develop to develop to create Abyssinian Development Corporation?
Johnson: How long had who been?
Flowers: (ah) Reverend Butts
Johnson: Reverend Butts came to the church in about 1971 or 1972 as a intern from (um) Union Theological (um) Seminary and he’s been there for almost 40 years (um) and he came under the tutelage of (um) Reverend Dr. Samuel D. Proctor and so (um) he Reverend Proctor was still there as the Executive as the head pastor when this (yawns) oh God when this revelation came about as far as that we needed to get involved more in the community (um) and so he gathered (ah) I would say about 15 or 17 church members all coming from different walks of life lawyers teachers (um) lawyers teachers I’m just going around the table (um) professors (um) civil service workers and he selected us and we started Abyssinian Development Corporation (um) prior to Abyssinian being started they had developed another board called the Abyssinian Housing Development Fund and that board was the one that oversaw our first housing project which is a Senior Citizens housing on 131st between lenox and fifth and what was unique about that senior citizen housing residence is that it provided onsite services for senior citizens recreational social medical and not medical so to speak that there’s a doctor there but helping people keep their appointments they had a social worker there (um) and a beautiful building right on 131st between lenox and fifth and I remember that the block again was infested with crime and crack houses and we organized the tenants association of the block to try to you know change the environment which we did we worked with the police department (um) it was kind of dangerous at one point because the drug dealers used to come into our meetings to see who was there and they would intimidate some of the I mean we didn’t live on the block but the tenants who came to the meetings did and it was kind of intimidating but (um) we (ah) we persisted and prevailed and really turned that block around (ah) and developed some condominiums directly across the street (ah) from the houses but anyway the houses the senior citizen housing was the first and then came our shelter for displaced families in Harlem and then came our Headstart Center and then came the schools but within that time we had many different projects in Harlem we (ah) did the Pathmark we also did the (ah) H&M where H&M is we did that whole strip where the we call it the Harlem Center project from H&M all the way to Lenox Avenue and across to 126th street where Planet Fitness is we did that whole development (um) we have many pockets of affordable housing (ah) throughout Harlem we’ve developed almost 1,400 affordable housing units (um) in Harlem marketed over 100 and sold and renovated over 100 Brownstones (um) and (um) what else also at one point did economic development where we actually had a Central Harlem (clears throat) local development corporation as a subsidiary of ADC that actually gave small business loans to (um) businesses who needed to either enhance or (yawns) develop a more quality (ah) environment for their business yup
Flowers: now it sounded like to me a couple of second a couple of seconds ago that you said schools as in plural
Johnson: yeah
Flowers: were there more schools more than Thurgood Marshall?
Johnson: well we had more than one Thurgood Marshall program we have our elementary school we have our middle school and we have our high school and they are seen as three separate entities
Flowers: Ahh elementary middle and high school
Johnson: then we have three headstart centers and now we’ve even reached outside and worked with Bread and Roses which is a failing high school that we’re trying to help and a school in the Bronx that the Board of Education gave Abyssinian Development Corporation a contract to provide after school services
Flowers: Can you take a step back and tell me how Thurgood Marshall Academy started.
Johnson: ah well Thurgood Marshall Academy started in 1993 and in 1992 a proposal came out from New Visions for Public Schools in conjunction with the Board of Ed(ucation) a proposal for anyone to develop a public school that could deliver quality educational services that could impact student performance and this came out of the Annenberg money Annenberg was a man who left billions and billions of dollars to public education and New Visions for Public School was the agency that was formed as the fiduciary to distribute this funds (um) so (um) Reverend Butts got the proposal across his desk one Sunday someone sent it to him and he felt that if our community was going to change for the better that even though we put better housing and have economic development that it would not persist if we did not have a highly educated community and looking at the quality of schools at that time which was not great and with parents sending their children outside of the community for better schools he felt that parents in our community should have a choice of good schools where they lived and if they choose to send their children outside of the community then it should be a choice and not a forced option and so (ah) he asked for volunteers for (ah) to write the proposal to start Thurgood Marshall Academy so myself and about 6 other church members go together (ah) and we wrote the proposal for Thurgood Marshall Academy submitted the application there was about 300 organizations that had submitted applications but only 12 schools only 12 applications would be chosen and we were 1 of 12 that were chosen to start the first smaller public learning communities in New York City
Flowers: How many of those applications do you know were targeted towards Harlem?
Johnson: I’m I don’t know
Flowers: ok
Johnson: I don’t know because it was opened up to the whole city so it wasn’t targeted for a community any community Harlem could’ve had a thousand applications it depends upon who wanted to submit an application and go through that application (ah) process (um) but at that time most of the schools in New York City were in the thousands as far as population this was the first wave of schools being less than 600 we could not go more than 600 students and people looked at that and didn’t think of us what kind of school is that only 600 kids is that a real school they don’t work hard ah they don’t have the problems that we have with 2,000 students blah blah balse blah blah but we were one of the first 12 and I don’t know how many of those 12 still exist some of them have closed (ah) did not survive (ah) when we started it was just 7 of us we had input into the hiring of the Principal and staff you know we participated in the interviews and everything
Flowers: when you say 7 of us who is the seven? Not who specifically but the committee was a committee of 7?
Johnson: Seven planning committee from the church they were all church members
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and they weren’t all educators some were one was a speech pathologist another was the head of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (um) and then most of us though we re teachers and (um) so we submitted the proposal in 1992 it was accepted and the school opened up in 1993 and whatever could go wrong with the school for the first 3 years went wrong nobody who was on the planning committee worked in the school we just had (um) we were able to input our opinions on who should be hired and so for the first 3 years there were 3 principals (um) there because we were it was a new idea as far as this smaller school population and a faith based institution being involved in education we were not warmly received in the community at that time the structure was (um) there was a superintendent and then there was community school boards and neither of them and I don’t know whether it was just faith based or whether it was just Reverend Butts because he was just very vocal at that time he had begun to become a voice of political social activism (um) but we did not get the support that we would need from the district to the point that one year they didn’t even give us enough desks we had to rent desks in order for our kids to have a place to study so because they didn’t support it and because it was felt they just dumped kids on our school in the school not that we didn’t want to take challenged kids but you don’t want to have school with all challenged kids it has to be a good balance so that there’s a good role model so that they can bounce off of each other and people I guess you need to know how to work partnerships partnerships are great but you have to know how to work them and massage them so that the end goal is met and I don’t think the principals at that time they were good principals but I don’t think they knew about how to really utilize the partnerships and resources in Harlem in order to make the school a productive and effective school
Flowers: Were they from Harlem?
Johnson: (um) one was from Harlem but all of them had worked in Harlem at one point or another
Flowers: Had they all been teachers before assuming he Principalship?
Johnson: they well they yes one was already a principal that switched to become the principal of Thurgood Marshall one was a teacher who became the principal and one was an assistant principal who became a principal it was all different levels of experience they were not new or brand new mature women they weren’t in their 20s you know (ah) they were in their 30s or 40s I don’t remember you know but every year for the first 3 years the school got worse you know whatever could go wrong went wrong we were treated like step children taking up space in someone else’s school building (um)
Flowers: How did you guys come to use the space in 136?
Johnson: Board of Ed(ucation)
Flowers: Board of Ed assigned it?
Johnson: um hmm well we were first in the Choir Academy building and then we could not expand anymore in there and so the first year we were in the Choir Academy in the Choir Academy building in the second year we moved to IS 136 ok so the first principal was in Choir Academy, the second principal was at 136 and the third principal was at 136 and two Chancellors had come to see the school because Reverend Butts is very well very highly respected you know and thought of and so they didn’t just come down and shut us down but they came to see the school and they said it was the worse school they had ever seen he didn’t know how it was even existing I mean student performance decreased there was a high (ah) rate of (ah) behavior incidents that generated a the establishment of a scanning station in the school where kids had to through scanning machines
Flowers: metal detectors?
Johnson: yeah metal detectors (um) it just was the the kids called the school a bootleg school you know (um) they were supposed to wear uniforms they didn’t wear uniforms (um) there was graffiti all over the I mean it was just not an environment (um) the planning committee for reasons which I will not share with you in this interview were not was not involved in the first year (um) but then became involved again in the second year and really did some afterschool training and tried to you know work with teachers but if you’re not there during the day you know it doesn’t so anyway it was supposed to close we knew we heard it through the grapevine that they were going to close it and Reverend Butts I cant remember the Chancellor we’ve been through so many chancellors (um) I wanna say it was Rudy Crew it was either Rudy Crew or what (inaudible) …I cant remember anyway he asked for one more chance and that’s when he asked me to take over the school and I said are you crazy I absolutely do not want to be an administrator I did not I didn’t go to school to become a principal
Flowers: so you were still at Montague at that time?
Johnson: yeah umm hmm
Flowers: and that’s a public school?
Johnson: umm hmm it’s a public school its for severely emotionally handicapped kids it’s a very unique program it was a collaboration with Jewish Board of Family and Children’s services and the Board of Ed(ucation) to provide onsite psychiatric therapeutic services to public school students so our school was only 30 students a psychiatrist was on site we had 3 psychiatric social workers classrooms were no more than 12 it was all year round school (ah) ‘cause a lot of the kids were on psychotropic medication so there was a doctor I mean it was very well our kids really did well if they could stay in the program ‘cause it was so nurturing and I mean we did everything we could for those kids you know to even paying rents sometimes the agency stepped in so I really had an experience of only working in settings like this for 28 years I never worked in regular ed(ucation) I only worked in special ed(ucation) so anyway I said are you kidding? I didn’t go to school to become a principal ahh I don’t wanna do it now just to step back while I was at Columbia you had to choose an elective so I saw all the “other” people (um) taking administration courses so I said well I guess I should take the administration courses too so I did I took enough to get my license to become a its called an SAS they changed the title now but the SAS qualifies you to become a building principal you cannot be a superintendent with a SAS you need a DAS a district something administrative supervisor its what I did and I got my credits but I never filed for the license I never ever filed to get the license so when he asked me and I said no um um I don’t want to do it but its really Deidre a divine destiny ‘cause I don’t know why I took those administration courses I never in my mind thought I would because I’m not a paper person I’ve become one but I was never I like a more hands on (ah) student student not being in a office (um) so I quickly said no he kept asking
Flowers: How many times did he ask?
Johnson: oh my god I can’t even remember every time I saw him I mean I think he started in like March and I don’t think and I think I reconsidered in May I felt that again we can complain about the education that’s going on in our communities but we don’t do anything about it and I felt that if it was gonna change then we had to be part of the change we always let outside people come in and try to fix things for our community we need to fix it ourselves and so I said ok I talked to Tommy (her husband) the kids our children that were living with us at that time and (um) ‘cause I said if I do it you know how I am its 100 percent its like you know you’re going to have to take a back burner he said “go for it” so I told Reverend Butts I said ok I’m gonna try it I said and even if I fail it will not be a failure to me because the failure is not trying so they had to rush and get my license submitted they had to talk to the commissioner and rush it through it usually takes like 6 months for filing and paperwork and stuff I think I got it in an expedited lest say an expedited amount of time and so June 30th I was a special education teacher with 30 students never having any administrative experience and on July 1st I was the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy
Flowers: and this was 1996?
Johnson: yes and I did something very interesting I have knew the teachers ‘cause I had volunteered there at their afterschool I didn’t get rid of any of the teachers ‘cause usually there’s three things they usually do with failing schools they get rid of the principal they get rid of the teachers and they change the name of the school I didn’t do any I only did two of I only did one of those 3 things happened and that was leadership change I met with the teachers and I said now I’ve been involved volunteering with you guys and I know what some of the issues are I said (um) so I’m not gonna get rid I’m not going to excess anyone I said because I don’t think you’ve had the support or the resources you really needed to be effective in the classroom so we are gonna work hard this summer getting all the re(sources) whatever we need to make sure the school is gonna be one of the top schools and you have to trust me that I’m gonna do my best to make sure that happens and they kinda believed in me because I used to e able to get certain things for them when I was volunteering that they needed for their classrooms just by asking church members or getting other resources from people I knew and (um) so we worked very hard that summer we looked at the curriculum got rid of all the graffiti we had paint teams we went to 125th street bought these plants and motivational posters we white washed the school cleaned it up scrubbed the desks (um)
Flowers: how many floors were you on at that time?
Johnson: two
Flowers: two, ok
Johnson: put carpet I put like throw rugs I had a office I made sure there was a couch in there and just did everything we could to make it the most pleasant environment that kids could be in an educational setting did a lot of outreach during the summer told parents your child had to wear a uniform and if you didn’t have the money we would get it for you we w(ouldn’t) I’m not gonna give you the money we’re gonna buy it for you and (um) there was no excuse a white shirt black pants black skirt and a school sweater that’s all we asked and we worked hard the teachers believed that it was going to happen and we (all) I remember standing in front of the students that day in the auditorium
Flowers: the first day of school?
Johnson: umm hmm I just told them point blank you know you have a bad rep but I know you are not what the rep is about this school this could be a great school but it cant be a great school just because I said it’s a great school you all have to demonstrate that it can be great that you want to be great that I know you can be great ad all the staff just lined up in front together like a unit like a … and we just said what our expectations were what would not be tolerated didn’t matter what level you read on but your performing that’s where you are now but this is where you are going to be when you leave us and I cant tell you we started to see changes within the same month
Flowers: How many students did you have when you first started?
Johnson: About 300
Flowers: and when you left how many students were there?
Johnson: about 550 we got the scanning ah metal detectors removed in 2 years because the behavior incidents went down really low (um) the students became more socially responsible I think it was very significant that I lived in the neighborhood ‘cause I told them I know what corner you should be standing on and I know what corner you should not be standing on and if I see you on that corner that you’re not standing on I’m coming I’m going to be in your Kool-Aid so we made it known that our rules were not just within the walls it was in the community and made a conscious effort to hire teachers that lived in the community so that about 85% of our teachers lived in the community they were our neighbors so that we would see (um) we would see our parents in the nail salon I could have while I’m getting my hair weaved I could have we could have a parent conference there and it would be on a much different level because I’m not someone who just comes in the community then leaves at the end of the day I understand the dynamics the social I hear the gun shots too I know you know the issues that our community had as you know ‘cause I live her too I’m your neighbor and so the level of communication (um) was on a different level it was the intimidation was not there (um) parents share some very intimate pieces of their life with me that they needed help with once I help them they could be better parents for their children (um) and so that helped us to really get to improve the student performance at our school I think the very in my first graduating class we were like at 90% above grade level you now we’ve always had challenges with our middle school middle school is tough
Flowers: that’s 6, 7 and 8th?
Johnson: oh yes middle school is real tough ‘cause based on the developmental period we needed more resources but what was great about our school was that 90 % of our middle school students stay for high school so if we didn’t get it right on middle school we got it right in high school
Flowers: so did the school the school did not start as a grade school it started at the middle school level then went to a high school and then you added the lower school?
Johnson: Yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: we first had the head start center then we started the middle school going up to high school but we realized that getting the kids just in 6th grade it was already too late
Flowers: right
Johnson: so in 2004 we decided to develop the elementary school and right now as I left when I the year I retired no 2010 was the first year that we got a cohort of students from the elementary school to the Junior High and so this year is the first year they are now in high school so we are really tracking these students to see what the longitudinal impact of being in a pipeline receiving the same services from the same organization and the same school has on the performance of the students
Flowers: so are your kids your kids are the students from Thurgood Marshall Academy graduating from high school are they going on to college?
Johnson: 90% of our kids go on to college but everybody has a plan whether its college or career (um) and our persistence rate meaning those who (um) have passed through at least the first year of college cause that’s the highest drop out rate in our last study was about 83%
Flowers: so about 83% of the students that went to college made it through their first year
Johnson: yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and what I’m doing now is another give back is when I retired I started cause I know all the graduating classes all of them and I decided to start an alumni association ‘cause I don’t think there are strong alumni there are more the stronger alumni associations exist in the south urban schools do not have other than having a dance they do not have strong (um) alumni associations so my friend told me who’s a lawyer said that the legal defense legal aid society has a program called community development project where they help organizations get their 501c(3) not for profit status for free so I gathered some of my alumni because they’re all talking about getting together but they were talking about getting together for a party so I got them together about 10 of them all from different years and told them about my idea for an alumni association they loved it it took a while for them to get it that it wasn’t Dr. Johnson’s organization it was theirs and they had to run it organize the meetings it took about a year and a half to get to that point but they have really taken it on I mean really taken it on where to the point they actually (ah) have a Facebook page and are on Instagram they’ve given scholarships the last two years that the alumni has donated (um) and this year we started our first program called Senior Saturdays where alumni I’m there with them and another teacher is volun(teering) is helping me with it (ah) but their doing (ah) Senior Saturdays which is a program that helps the current seniors at Thurgood Marshall develop their college essays so our first part of it is college essays right college essays then we’re going to do scholarships and resumes and then survival skills and
Flowers: survival skills for college?
Johnson: um hmm or career
Flowers: ok
Johnson: and the program goes from November until May and this is the first year we are doing it
Flowers: so you are still active with Thurgood Marshall even though you are “retired”? (laughs)
Johnson: ah yeah because the work doesn’t stop when they graduate from high school it doesn’t stop when they graduate from college a lot of these students do not have (um) strong family situations some come from dysfunctional families (um) and so our school has become the family I mean we have actually taken kids to college because their parents couldn’t we have actually raised money there was one young lady who was accepted to (um) let me get it right Vassar and with the financial aid package was missing a couple of thousand and we were able to raise the money in order for her to fill that gap so that she could go and figure it out later and not miss that opportunity (ah) we have done home visits we have we’ve done whatever it takes to make sure that that child has as many options when they graduate from college we also have a very strong wellness program where we actually have a suite of doctors offices in our school that’s sponsored by (um) Columbia Presbyterian and we have a Nurse Practitioner who can give full physical exams immunizations we have a strong (um) sex ed(ucation) program there have been very few pregnancies in our school if they are pregnant they I guess I don’t know about it because they’ve made a decision on what to do with that state (um) that we are not privy to I just know that I don’t see many pregnant girls in our school at all (ah) I think in the 16 years I was there I could probably tell you maybe I know of about maybe 20
Flowers: Now how long has that program been in the school? I was there on Saturday (November 23rd) for a meeting all day and I actually got a quick tour of that medical suite. How long has that program been in the school?
Johnson: since when I came it started when I came
Flowers: ok
Johnson: in 1996, what program were you there for on Saturday?
Flowers: It was a Delta meeting, (laughs)
Johnson: oh yeah no I know they had the meeting there
Flowers: yeah we had the Delta meeting, as a matter of fact I met the principal
Johnson: in fact I started that they (ah) I forgot who was it when I was there they used to meet in the library I don’t know if you all still meet in the library but (ah) our librarian
Flowers: Muneerah?
Johnson: our librarian
Flowers: Muneerah
Johnson: ah yes it was (um) is our librarian and she asked could the Deltas (meet) sure it don’t matter
Flowers: and (um) Gloria Mabry who’s the (um) she’s the Physician’s Assistant
Johnson: right she’s a Delta too
Flowers: Is there a Zina Mingo? Is she working there?
Johnson: yeah umm hmm
Flowers: they were all there and we were there all day
Johnson: And there’s another one there a Delta … Epps
Flowers: Tiese?
Johnson: yes
Flowers: Tiese yes ok
Johnson: um hmm um hmm
Flowers: ok so we’ve talked for quite a bit of time here (um)
Johnson: Did I meet my 2 hours?
Flowers: I I think we’re almost to the two hours what I do want to ask this is I guess kind of ending question (um) and this could go on for hours I guess from your youth in Harlem to now your retirement (um) living in basically on the same block or where you grew up (um) in the same area where you grew up what are some of the changes that you’ve seen across all of that time in Harlem good bad ugly how would you sum it up what do you think of it and where do you think Harlem as a community is going?
Johnson: hmm (silence) well the changes that I’ve seen are all relegated to the gentrification process that probably started kinda subtly in the 1980s like the late 1980s no I want to say 1990s in the 1990s so what changes more police presence in the community when other people were moving in to our community I’ve seen the infusion of businesses that I used to have to go downtown to shop I mean they’re building a Macy’s on 125th street Whole Foods is coming to Lenox Avenue we have
Flowers: I know about the Whole Foods but not the Macy’s
Johnson: yes that’s the new thing
Flowers: that could be a problem (laughs)
Johnson: the Macy’s (um) we have a Westin we’ve never had a major hotel chain in Harlem
Flowers: Aloft
Johnson: we have Westin Aloft is part of the Westin we now have a major movie theatre which we didn’t have for years we always had to go downtown somewhere when I grew up
Flowers: 86th street
Johnson: yeah when I grew up we had the RKO Alhambra right there on 7th Avenue between 125th and 126th where the bowling alley is and where that restaurant used to be ah that used to be the RKO Alhambra they took down the marquee and everything but is used to be our movie theatre we had 2 movie theaters
Flowers: I didn’t know it was a movie theater
Johnson: that was the RKO Alhambra and around the corner between 7th and 8th you still see the marquee it used to be the Lowes theater its where there’s a lot of people selling stuff but you’ll see the marquee is in the middle of the block near the traffic light that’s in the middle of the block
Flowers: right right is that the one was that still the Victoria 105?
Johnson: yes
Flowers: ok
Johnson: um hmm but that was a Lowes theater (um) I’ve seen the decline of black businesses in Harlem and an infusion of major chains and restaurants that wouldn’t would never have thought of coming to Harlem but I think 9/11 changed all of that because on 9/11 there were all kinda people up here in Harlem because it appeared to be the safest place people were walking through our community dazed but it was a safe place and then people really started moving uptown because they left downtown no one wanted to live downtown anymore Harlem was perfect we’re 5 minutes from Jersey 5 minutes from Queens across the Triborough (ah) still can get downtown near the 1,2,3,A, B I mean all (ah) major transportation so there started to be an infusion of people from diverse backgrounds (um) there seemed to be an infusion of businesses that would never ever come up here I mean Joe’s Crab Shack I mean that’s a suburbia restaurant
Flowers: (laughing) it certainly is
Johnson: Joe’s Carb Shack on 8th Avenue Red Lobster
Flowers: on 125th
Johnson: on 125th those people usually don’t even build a restaurant unless there’s a parking lot next to it there’s no parking lot next to these ‘cause people walk to these restaurants its in an urban area (um) the infusion of charter schools which that’s a whole ‘nother 12 hour interview (ah) I’ll just say (ah) something to think about is why does Harlem have the most charter schools per square mile than any other community in the United States it’s a thought (um) I have seen the decline of respect for public education (um) that its inferior when our mayor has gone to public school
Flowers: Mayor elect or Bloomberg?
Johnson: Bloomberg
Flowers: ok
Johnson: you know when many Barbara Streisand (ah) I think she went to (um) if I’m not mistake LaGuardia I mean there’s a lot of very successful people that graduated and did well with a public education and its just not respected as it was when I was growing up affordable housing doesn’t exist (ah) Abyssinian Development Corporation I think is only one of the major community organizations that is making sure that a lot of our residents are not displaced and one (ah) good example of that is our our our taking over Ennis House on 7th Avenue Between 123rd and 124th where the landlord walked away from it wholes in the walls rat infested lots of problems (ah) and tenants came to us to help them develop a strong tenet’s association and to help redevelop the building you know we’re having a little issues we were caught in the recession and so we’re at a stalemate with the new building we were building on 123rd street but we’ll resolve it
Flowers: 123rd and what?
Johnson: 123rd between 7th and 8th
Flowers: ok
Johnson: you know its half built but there are many other construction sites that you see where the construction was
Flowers: halted
Johnson: halted you know for many reasons (um) but clearly that’s an example that had we not gotten involved in that that building might have become an example of gentrification the building becoming just a high market rental building and now its really a Section 8 building and so that’s a very big difference you know its not a money maker for us its (ah) a way that (ah) we provide housing and so that gentrification doesn’t displace our residents ah what else do I see now the pros are I like that I don’t have to go across the bridge or downtown to eat a Red Lobster or Joe’s Crab Shack yeah I like the fact that yeah Whole Foods is coming ‘cause our community likes to eat healthy too and so now we’re getting more healthy alternatives you know for us to choose from (ah) yeah I like it that I don’t have to 86th street anymore that I can walk from my house to go to the theater I like all of those things I like that the block that my house is on I don’t see crack houses anymore and most of the owners in my block live in their houses and even though its diverse you know we tend to be a good community on our block you know I love my block you know I love my block I mean this is a great block to live on (um) I guess that’s what stands out in my mind the most and each of those is its own separate interview as to why those pros and cons exist (um) but that’s about it I would never live anywhere else but Harlem I think Harlem to me is a community and a family when you walk down the street there’s never I can never get to my destination without someone saying hello someone may not know you but will always say hello I lived on 86th street nobody said hello to me they were probably wondering why I was down there as a matter of fact when we were growing up we you know there was always this thing across 110th street was always better so it was always my dream to live downtown and I did live downtown we had a duplex apartment on 87th street off Central Park it was the worst experience of my life I couldn’t wait to get back to Harlem I came home one day the super was cleaning my door I said why are you cleaning the door he said I’m cleaning the blood off because your neighbors husband tried to (ah ah) knock the a bottle over his wife’s head and she tried to get to you to get some help and left blood all over your door and then one day the duplex had a skylight I’m sleeping and the police broke through my skylight to raid the wrong apartment they were trying to raid the other apartment that was a drug place I said I ain’t move down here to pay all this rent for this crap and so I went to a Mitchell Lama building on 96th street for a long time and then when my husband started talking about Queens that’s what got me back to Harlem and I love it I would never live my husband really wants to move down south I told him to go I would never leave Harlem there is no place that has the cultural diversity and history that Harlem has of our people plus New York I would never leave it has mass transportation is it perfect no but it gets you to from point A to B wherever you want to go 24 hours a day and it has the best health institutions (um) the best everything you know and yeah its not perfect but no place is perfect and Harlem to me I would never live anywhere else I love Harlem I breath Harlem I would never leave
Flowers: One final question (um) would you mind telling me what year you were born?
Johnson: No I’m glad to tell you because there are some people who cant tell you what year they were born because they’re dead
Flowers: oh this is true
Johnson: I was born in 1947
Flowers: 1947 ok
Johnson: So I’m going to be 66 in December
Flowers: December 11th I know that’s the day I start my new job (laughs)
Johnson: yes congratulations
Flowers: ok thank you Ms. J for helping me out with this, I will be in touch I will transcribe all of this and then be in touch with the next steps as we go through the ending of the semester
Johnson: ok
Flowers: Thank you

Original Format

Digital audio recording

Duration

1:47:16

Added by

Flowers, Deidre B.

Date added

2013-12-10