JMU in the Community

'It was meant to be'

Madison's first African American graduate earned her degree 50 years ago

Sheary Darcus' ('70, '74M) senior portrait in The Bluestone, 1970.

SUMMARY: Sheary Darcus Johnson ('70, '74M) reflects on her Madison Experience as the institution's first African American graduate, and shares how she has drawn from her life's path to benefit other people through education and ministry.

By Janet Smith (’81)

Sheary Darcus Johnson (’70, ’74M) did not set out to be a trailblazer, but as this institution’s first African American graduate, the mantle was nonetheless on her shoulders.

Growing up in Harrisonburg, where public schools were racially segregated, Johnson and her siblings were shielded from the harsh realities of discrimination by their parents, Pastor Henry Darcus Sr. and Ann Darcus. But as a student at Lucy F. Simms School, Johnson realized that “separate but equal” meant secondhand books, teachers with limited experience beyond the African American community and less rigorous academic standards.

“What made me really want to change was when we had someone who was a valedictorian from Simms School go to Virginia State, which is an all-black college, and have to take remedial courses,” Johnson said. “Well, to me, that didn’t make sense. It said that we weren’t receiving proper preparation all the way around.”

“I wanted to change and go to the white school because it was definitely my desire to go to college,” she said. Her father—believing “nothing beats a failure but a try”—went to the Harrisonburg School Board to request enrollment for his daughter. To this day, Johnson does not know the particulars of the meeting, but she and five other African American students enrolled at Harrisonburg High School in 1964.

She was challenged academically at HHS, and she performed well as a dedicated student. “I went to the library a lot,” she said. There, she studied and deepened a love of books, nurtured at home and at Simms, which inspired her to choose library science as her college major.

Johnson, whose high-school performance garnered a state scholarship, applied to Madison, Longwood and Virginia State colleges because each offered library science programs. “I applied to Madison and got early acceptance, which said, ‘Wow, you had to be good to get that,’ so I was pretty pleased.” She joined the Class of 1970.

Sheary Darcus Johnson with members of the Sesame Club.
Members of the Sesame Club gathered for a photo that appeared in The Bluestone in 1967. The organization was for Madison College's "day students" who lived off campus.

“I believe that I needed to go to Madison,” Johnson said. “I needed that library degree. That’s what I was focused on, and I needed that as one of my spirit experiences to get me ready to be able to do the things that I’ve been doing.”

Her Madison College experience was generally positive, with the exception of a few students’ actions. “There were a few people who kind of acted like they didn’t want to be around me. If I sat down, they got up,” she recalled. “But that was on them, how they were acting. How they felt didn’t have to determine how I was going to respond.”

Johnson said, “I chose to be around people who meant business as far as going to school was concerned. It wasn’t like I was in partying atmospheres and that kind of thing. I was there for the education.”

She recalls good professors, especially among the library science faculty, led by department chairman Forrest Palmer. “At Madison, I felt like people cared whether or not Sheary was successful,” she said. “And because they cared, they wanted to know how they could help me.”

Portraits of Sheary Darcus Johnson and Forrest Palmer.darcus-palmer-split-photo
Sheary Darcus' 1968 photo in The Bluestone. She recalls Forrest Palmer, head of the library science faculty, as one of her favorite professors.

A singer with her sisters in her father’s church, Johnson auditioned for the Concert Choir and was part of the ensemble throughout her Madison years. “I enjoyed learning the music from the different periods and I enjoyed traveling,” she said.

In 1968, the choir traveled to New York City for a concert. Upon arriving at their hotel, they learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots were breaking out in NYC. The students were whisked into the hotel, where they remained until the next evening’s concert. The choir performed as planned and safely returned to campus, shaken by their experience and saddened by King’s death, Johnson reflected.

The Concert Choir at Madison College performing outdoors
The Concert Choir at Madison College in 1969-70. Sheary Darcus was a member of the choir throughout her undergraduate years.

Johnson graduated in Spring 1970 and became the librarian at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg. She earned a master’s degree in library science at Madison and remained in the city until 1978, when she and her husband, Russell Johnson (’74), moved to Richmond for her new job as head librarian at Hopewell High School.

In 1988, she earned an Ed.D. with an instructional technology focus from the University of Virginia and joined the faculty of the College of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she taught library science and supervised student teachers before she left for full-time ministry.

Johnson also administered Victory Academy of Early Learning at the church she and her husband founded in Richmond, Victory Family Worship Center. Seeing a need in her community in 1990, Johnson founded an outreach initiative that became Better People Inc., a nonprofit to educate youth and adults to become productive citizens. She wrote successful grant proposals to help implement programs as well as curriculum for the nonprofit’s seminars and workshops that teach and reinforce skills in conflict resolution, moral guidance, problem-solving, social skills, personal development and entrepreneurship.

Sheary Darcus Johnson laughs at a JMU conference.
Sheary Darcus Johnson during the Black Women in Academia Conference at JMU, Oct. 13-14, 2016.

Johnson remains involved with Better People and supports its efforts to help people be their best.

“You have a lot of children who have potential,” Johnson said, “and unless somebody takes an interest in them and is willing to spend time and their resources, they’ll go, just live without reaching their potential. And that’s certainly a waste to that family and to the children.”

Johnson’s experience and influence are keenly felt in her religious denomination, the 6 million-member Church of God in Christ. She is a member of the National Advisory Board Department of Women, was the original coordinator of the International COGIC Women’s Book Club and is the founding supervisor of the Virginia 4th Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction.

She has written two books, Steps to Empowerment, which explains the concept of bibliotherapy—the use of books, articles and videos to enhance knowledge and understanding to overcome a challenge—and Why I Didn’t Say YES: Understanding the Dynamics of the Body, Soul, and Spirit, which provides insight into understanding oneself as a step toward making the right choices in life.

The Darcus Sisters singing group on an album cover
Sheary Darcus (second from left) joined her sisters, (L-R) Alecia, Cynthia and Henrietta Vernice, in a jacket photo for a gospel album they recorded. The sisters sang in churches throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

In her own life, Johnson believes “The Lord ordered my steps. (Going to) Madison was one of the wisest decisions that I made because of what I gained, and I’ve been able to use that to help others. I’d like to feel like I can go in any environment, anywhere, and be able to exist. I am a thinker; I am an observer. I learned the value of just sitting and listening and trying to get all the sides. And more than likely, once you get all the sides, at least you understand what happened or why people think like they think.”

She aspires to “keep open” to future opportunities, including the possibility of writing another book to educate and encourage other people by drawing on her experiences and insights. Johnson enjoys helping her daughter, Rachael, and son-in-law, Mecca, propel her three grandchildren, MecCaylah, Leigha and Mecca Jr., into their futures through education and experiences that will enrich their lives.

“I just think it was meant to be, but it wasn’t something that I meant to do,” Johnson said of her part in integrating HHS and Madison College. “It wasn’t me thinking first that I’m going to integrate. It was going after what I needed.”

Editor’s Note: Madison appreciates Adele Johnson, executive director of the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, and her staff for providing the location for our interview with Johnson.

Virginia’s history of segregated schools

By Margaret M. Mulrooney, Ph.D.

Dr. Johnson’s positive memories of Madison reflect her unique experiences in the 1960s. Placed in historical context, her story reminds us that JMU’s campus was once segregated, and that thousands of black Virginians were denied equal access to education. Many Americans mistakenly think that the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 ended racially separate schools. In fact, Southern states quickly implemented a policy of “massive resistance,” the term coined by the movement’s leader, Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling allowed localities to determine the process for and speed of desegregation, some communities in Virginia, dominated by pro-segregation whites, decided to close their public schools rather than comply with federal mandates, while others explored strategies for limited desegregation. Lawyers for the NAACP, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson continued to sue uncooperative school boards in an effort to achieve substantive change.

During Johnson’s childhood, Harrisonburg garnered significant statewide attention. The Friendly City was one of a handful of white-dominated localities that voted against a controversial Virginia constitutional amendment to redirect public-school funds to private, all-white, charter schools; it also boasted Madison College, the state’s leading teacher-training institution as well as the federal courthouse for the Western District of Virginia, where in 1956 and 1958 Judge John Paul issued two pivotal rulings that contradicted the Byrd machine’s directives. But despite local support for desegregation, Harrisonburg schools remained racially separate until 1964, when Dr. Johnson and 10 other individuals formally desegregated the high school, now JMU’s Memorial Hall.

Johnson’s admission to Harrisonburg High School and, later, Madison College occurred under so-called freedom of choice plans. These plans emerged after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed the federal government to sue noncompliant school districts and withhold federal funds. On paper, freedom of choice plans allowed families to choose which schools they wanted their children assigned to, but in practice, they functioned as yet another way to preserve dual-school systems. In Virginia, no white families switched to black schools, and the number of black families who, like the Darcuses, requested and actually received reassignment was very small.

Thanks to additional NAACP suits, the U.S. Supreme Court declared freedom of choice plans unconstitutional in Green v. New Kent County, VA (1968). By that time, Madison College had admitted just a few black students. Although Dr. Johnson is Madison’s first African American graduate, preliminary research suggests there were possibly two individuals who attended before her but kept their racial identity concealed. There is still so much to learn as we study Madison’s complex past.

Desegregation efforts expanded under JMU President Ronald E. Carrier, who began his tenure in 1971 determined to transform the institution from a single-sex, segregated college into a comprehensive university. By 1972, Madison enrolled 72 black undergraduates out of a population of 5,000. The establishment of Delta Sigma Theta in 1971, the Black Student Alliance in 1972 and new courses in African American history after 1975 demonstrated a new commitment to change. So did the hiring of black faculty and staff. After Gov. John Dalton finally settled the last federal suit against Virginia in 1978, integration at the newly christened James Madison University accelerated.

Editor’s Note: Mulrooney is associate vice provost for University Programs and a professor of history at JMU. As a specialist in 19th-century to early 20th-century U.S. social and cultural history, especially race and ethnicity, her research interests include the history of James Madison University, race relations in Virginia and collective memory. Her most recent book is Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina (2018).

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Published: Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Last Updated: Thursday, May 21, 2020

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