Resident’s passing reminds community of Civil Rights progress, education

Published 6:07 pm Friday, February 12, 2016

The Post Searchlight learned this week of the death of Wilbur Johnson Sr., at the age of 96. Several years ago we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Johnson and are re-publishing portions of an article written and published in The Post Searchlight about Mr. Johnson and his amazing life.

It is appropriate not only as a memorial of his life, but gives insight into the history of the era during this Black History Month.

It reads:

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“On January first, the Bainbridge-Decatur County Civic and Progressive League held the traditional Emancipation Proclamation Day celebration at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church. One of those honored was Wilbur Johnson, who was recognized for his service to the community.

“As Martin Luther King Day approaches, we take a look at the changing world through the eyes of this man who has served Decatur County citizens from the days of segregation, through the turbulent years of the civil rights movement, and continues to work today to improve the lives and opportunities for all people.

Benjamin Disraeli said, “the greatest secret of success in life is for a person to be ready when their opportunity comes.” Wilbur Johnson is a man who is ready and able to recognize opportunities when he sees them. He also takes action to make the most of them.

Wilbur Johnson was born in Fowlstown and started school in 1924 in a little school building, the site of which is now on property owned by his family. Decatur County had discontinued operation of the school and the families living in that area pooled their resources to hire a teacher to instruct their children, Otherwise he would have had to walk three and a half miles to school.

At age 9 he entered 4th grade at the Union Normal School, operated by the First Flint River Missionary Baptist Association. “There were three teachers for all the students from first grade through eleven. None of the schools in the area had 12 grades until sometime in the early 1950s,” recalls Johnson. He finished the 11th grade at age 15 and moved on to Central City College in Macon, a two-year junior college operated by the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia. Unfortunately, it was not accredited by the state, a fact that had significant impact on Johnson’s life.

Following his graduation he became principal of Dry Creek School at the age of 17. He had been there but a short time when the newly elected Governor, Ed Rivers, set about to reform state public school educational standards by increasing the time for mandatory school sessions from four months to seven months and requiring all teachers to have a minimum of one year college education from an accredited school.

Johnson had been receiving $30 a month pay for four months of work, but was now unable to be state certified. He could continue working under a county certification, with wages reduced to $25 per month, but was now required to work seven months. His response to that situation was indicative of the spirit of a man who grasps opportunity when he sees it. He decided “I’m goin’ back to school if I have to walk.”

He enrolled in the Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah in 1938 and graduated with honors in 1941. He promptly returned to teaching, as a Jeans teacher named after Anna T. Jeans, a philanthropist who dedicated money to promote the training program.

He began an extensive pursuit of education that eventually led him to a 28-year career with the Georgia State Department of Education as an area vocational agriculture teacher.

Prior to 1954 Johnson recalls the black schools had hand tools, but no power equipment in the schools. In an effort to upgrade the black schools and make them “separate but equal,” the schools began to receive power tools, but there was no knowledge in how to use them. As an itinerant teacher he worked out of the Tifton District office going from school to school teaching the teacher as well as students and adults.

February, 1944 he was drafted into the U.S. Army as a private and reported to Ft Benning, where he helped set up schools to teach young inductees who were illiterate. He became aware of an opportunity to apply for officer candidate school and was accepted. He graduated as a second lieutenant and was shipped to Italy to serve as a replacement officer to the 92nd Division.

After he left the service he became the vocational agriculture teacher in Brinson and West Bainbridge. He enrolled in the masters program at Iowa State University of Science and Technology on the GI Bill. He couldn’t go to the University of Georgia as it was segregated. He graduated with an M.A. in agricultural education in 1952 and came back to Decatur County at Brinson High School. When it closed in 1954 he moved to Hutto as the vo-ag teacher and was recruited by the state as the area teacher for blacks.

When UGA became integrated he took advantage of courses in electrical wiring and welding. When the state decided all electrical workers must be licensed, he seized the opportunity and obtained his license, He remained a licensed self-employed electrician until his death.

Johnson was an original member of the Bainbridge City Tree Committee and the first of two back men to serve on the county school board. He was a life member of American Legion Post 502 and a member of Emanuel M.B. Church in Fowlstown.

In his lifetime he was the recipient of many awards, He was inducted into the Georgia Agriculture Education Hall of Fame in 2000, and was given the American Farmer Degree award by the FFA at their 56th convention in Kansas City.

He and his wife had two children. A daughter, Susan Grace Johnson, lives and works in DeKalb County where she is the director of project management with an Atlanta law firm.

She recalls her father always encouraged her to do her best. His favorite saying to her was, “Never rest on your laurels. Always continue to improve.” She has taken his advise to heart and holds two masters degrees.

Son Wilbur Jr. lives in Virginia near Washington, DC. and is a senior scientific analyst in the cosmetic industry. Referring to his father’s influence on his life, he said, “it was always a given that we were going to college.”

Education was that important to Wilbur Sr., as neither of his parents ever finished school.