Art Installation Honors Josie Johnson's Lifelong Commitment to Civil Rights

New display marks completion of the Humphrey School's Josie Robinson Johnson Community Room for Social Justice
March 23, 2023
Group photo of attendees at the dedication of the Josie Johnson Community Room
Family and longtime friends of Josie Johnson, seated in the front row in white, gathered to dedicate a new art installation in the Josie Robinson Johnson Community Room for Social Justice at the Humphrey School on March 13, 2023. Photo: Bruce Silcox

It was a day for the University of Minnesota to celebrate and recognize the contributions of civil rights icon Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson to the University, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the state of Minnesota. 

At a gala luncheon on March 13 attended by some 300 friends and admirers, Johnson received the University’s Regents Awardone of the highest honors the U of M bestows. The award recognizes those who demonstrate exceptionally valuable and meritorious service to the University.

The Humphrey School hosted a reception in Johnson's honor that afternoon, to celebrate the completion of a new art installation chronicling Johnson’s civil rights activism and advocacy over the past six decades.  

Johnson, 92, is sometimes referred to as 'Minnesota's first lady of civil rights.' She was the first African American to serve on the University’s Board of Regents from 1971 to 1973. She also helped establish what is now the Department of African American and African Studies, and led other equity and diversity efforts on campus in the 1990s.   

Johnson is also a friend and advocate for the Humphrey School, having served as a senior fellow and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council. The School established a fellowship in her name in 2018, and the art installation represents the final step in the dedication of the School's Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson Community Room for Social Justice. 

A small group of Johnson’s family and close friends joined her for the unveiling. 

A reflection of the community

The walls of the Josie Johnson Room are filled with photos, posters, and newspaper clippings illustrating major steps in the state’s civil rights movement and Johnson’s own journey, which included her leading the Minnesota delegation to the 1963 March on Washington, participating in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi, and pushing for the passage of the fair housing act in Minnesota in the early 1960s. 

Norrene Duffy looks at historic photos of her mother, Josie Johnson
Norrene Duffy looks at historic photos of her mother, Josie Johnson. Photo: Bruce Silcox

When you look at the photos, though, you won’t see any showing Johnson standing next to famous leaders of the movement. Catherine Squires, former associate dean at the Humphrey School, explained that a group of students led the planning for the display, working with Johnson to tell the story she wanted to share.    

“It was the most amazing thing to have students from the African American Studies Department, the department that Josie founded, go through the archives and develop this display,” said Squires. “They wanted to bring the community into the room, to recognize the brilliance of Dr. Johnson, but also the community that she has strengthened with her compassion and love.”

One of those students, Jarice Sherman, said the group was inspired by reading Johnson’s autobiography, Hope in the Struggle. 

“I was a North Minneapolis kid. I walked the streets that she literally paved, and that hit home for me,” Sherman said. “We wanted this room to represent what that looked like. When people come into this room, we want them to look at and sit with the artwork, ask questions about what happened then, and what’s possible in the future.” 

Love and inspiration

Humphrey School Dean Nisha Botchwey echoed those sentiments, saying she hopes the Josie Johnson Room will be an inspiration for all those who use it. 

“Thank you, Josie, for inspiring all of us. Thank you for embracing us with hope and love, not just at the Humphrey School but throughout the community,” said Botchwey. “You are the example for how we will continue to do all the work that still lies ahead.” 

Dean Nisha Botchwey stands next to Josie Johnson
Dean Nisha Botchwey and Josie Johnson. Photo: Bruce Silcox

The guests at the reception showered Johnson with love and affection, many recounting her personal support for them and their families as well as her profound influence as a role model in the civil rights movement. 

Longtime friend Bill English, a social justice advocate, described Johnson as the “first ‘Woman King’ I’ve known.”

“I’d given up on this place so many times, but you never allowed me to give up. You always talked about the young people [who will carry on the work]. You inspired so many of us to tolerate a lot,” he said. “The work you have done speaks for you. You will never be forgotten. We’re in the autumn of our place on the planet, and I am so proud that I spent so many moments with you.” 

Johnson, in her typically gracious and self-effacing manner, thanked the attendees for sharing the day with her. 

“I’m so happy to be here among you … many of whom I’ve watched, growing and developing and contributing in a million different ways to the life of this great institution,” Johnson said. “The work I’ve done here at the U and in the state of Minnesota has not felt like work. My generation has grown up doing the work, and here you are modeling for us the result of that work. 

“I want you to know just how deeply touched I am by your presence and what I know to be your love and hope for me. I am so deeply humbled by it all.” 

See more photos of the event

About the Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship

The Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship was established in 2018, to support students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who have demonstrated strong academic achievement. It is especially intended for students interested in pursuing remedies to racial inequities and injustice.

The fund will assist the Humphrey School in enhancing the diversity of its student body. Contribute to the fund