Professor, author, civil rights activist Josie Johnson honored with U of M Regents Award

Professor, author, civil rights activist, and Regent Emerita Josie R. Johnson, EdD, was presented with the University of Minnesota Regents Award before a large gathering of family, friends, former colleagues, and civic leaders held at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus March 13.

Several recipients of the Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship, which supports graduate students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, were also in attendance for the celebration. The award was presented by Regent Bo Thao-Urabe, who said that she could not imagine a more deserving individual.

UMRA member Kathleen O’Brien was among those who attended the celebration in honor of her friend and former colleague. She shared this reflection of the special event:

"For those of us who had the privilege of working with Dr. Josie Johnson at the University of Minnesota, we knew she had earned the University's highest honor, the Regents Award, long ago. Among her many roles at the University, Dr. Johnson was associate vice president for academic affairs, with special responsibility for minority affairs and diversity, in the early ’90s for President Nils Hasselmo. Her portfolio meant that Josie worked on every campus, in every college and academic program, with all deans, faculty, and students, to advance what we today call diversity, equity, and inclusion. As Hasselmo’s chief of staff, I was there to see her impact in real time. 

“At the awards ceremony, Professor Emeritus John Wright provided a powerful history of Josie Johnson as an activist, academic leader, teacher, and mentor who made our world better. It was particularly appropriate for Dr. Wright to speak in her honor. He, as an undergraduate, was among the students who occupied Morrill Hall in 1969 and negotiated with then community leader Josie Johnson to establish a series of new academic programs at the University, including the Department of African American & African Studies, one of the first in the United States.

“Josie said to those gathered at McNamara on March 13 it was a blessing for her at age 92 to be with us to receive this award of gratitude from our University. If you have not read her memoir, Hope in the Struggle, do so today. It will give you hope and encourage you to follow Josie."

Exemplary of humanity and love

As many UMRA members may recall, the extraordinary Dr. Johnson joined the Retirees Association “in conversation,” as she put it, for the September 2020 UMRA Forum, one of the first we held via Zoom after our monthly in-person programs at the Campus Club were cancelled due to COVID-19.

In his summary of that event, then UMRA President Frank Cerra wrote, “Dr. Johnson’s message and delivery were inspiring and a reflection both of her life-long struggle and of her leadership stature that is exemplary of humanity and love. She is the essence of hope for the future, even in these troubling times.”

Read Professor Emeritus John Wright’s recollections of the 1969 takeover of Morrill Hall in “On being maroon, and gold, and Black” on pages 4-5 of the April 2021 UMRA News.

UMRA is proud that Josie Johnson received a 2016–17 Professional Development Grants for Retirees award to support the publication of her memoir.

—Kristine Mortensen, editor