Kentucky’s Lyman T. Johnson: Educator and Civil Rights Activist

I am always eager to share stories about passionate teachers who have dedicated their talent and influence to compelling social causes. One of these is Lyman Tefft Johnson, a high school teacher who worked towards racial justice during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.

Lyman was born on June 12, 1906, in Columbia, Tennessee, the eighth of nine children born to Robert and Mary (Dew) Johnson. He was the grandson of former slaves.

In 1926, at the age of 20, Lyman earned  his high diploma from the preparatory division of Knoxville College, a historically black institution in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1930, Lyman earned his bachelor’s degree in Greek from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, and the following year he completed the requirements for his master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan in Detroit, Michigan.

Once he completed his education, Lyman accepted a position as a teacher of history, economy, and mathematics at Central High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Lyman had already been teaching for 16 years when he won a legal case to integrate the University of Kentucky in 1949, a full five years before the US Supreme Court made its famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools.

Lyman taught at Central High until 1966, then spent seven years working in the Jefferson County Public Schools as an assistant principal. During these years, he continued his civil rights work, leading efforts to integrate local neighborhoods, swimming pools, schools, and restaurants. He was also a major force behind a fight for equal pay for his both black and white teachers in his district. In addition, Lyman headed the Louisville Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for six years.

In all, Lyman devoted 34 years of his life as an educator. For his work as a teacher and civil rights activist, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky (1979), the Governor’s Distinguished Service Medallion for Volunteerism (1995), and the City of Louisville’s first Freedom Award (1988). Also, a Louisville school was renamed in his honor. In 1980, Parkland Junior High School was designated Lyman T. Johnson Middle School. This amazing chalkboard champion passed away on October 3, 1997. He was 91 years old.

To learn more about this amazing teacher and civil rights activist, click on Lyman T. Johnson Obituary. You might also want to read a biography of him written by Professor Emeritus Wade Hall of Bellarmine University entitled The Rest of the Dream: The Black Odyssey of Lyman T. Johnson.

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