Seventy years after missing her own graduation ceremony, 99-year-old World War II veteran Elizabeth Barker Johnson wheeled her walker across the 2019 Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) commencement stage on Friday to formally receive her teaching diploma.
As she made her way in a red graduation cap and gown and white sash, the crowd erupted into a thunderous applause and gave her a standing ovation.
“Every student dreams of the day they get to walk across the stage and accept their diploma. Being able to see my grandmother physically accept hers 70 years later and to have the entire coliseum give her a standing ovation upon her receiving it brought tears to my eyes,” Shandra Bryant, Barker’s granddaughter, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It was a very moving moment that I know none of us will forget.”
Born on May 2, 1920 in Elkin, North Carolina, Johnson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. “When I was growing up, we would be in class and sometimes [other children] couldn't even answer simple questions. I thought, 'If I could help this child in any way, I would,’” Johnson tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Before she pursued her dreams of teaching, however, Johnson decided to serve her country, enlisting in the U.S. Army right after high school.
During World War II, Johnson was a member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-female, all-African American regiment deployed overseas in the war. According to her daughter Cynthia Scott, Johnson served in Kentucky, England and France, driving trucks and working at make-shift military post offices to sort through millions of back-logged mail in aircraft hangers.
After the war, Johnson enrolled at Winston-Salem Teacher’s College (now Winston-Salem State University), becoming the first woman at the college to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. By August 1949, Johnson had completed a Bachelor of Science in special education and secured her first teaching job in Spencer, Va.
However, after all her hard work, Johnson was unable to find a substitute teacher to cover for her and missed her own college commencement. Instead, she later received her diploma in the mail.
“I was very disappointed. I was almost in tears,” Johnson tells Yahoo Lifestyle of having to miss this important milestone. Still, Johnson, a single mother of two, continued to teach in Virginia and later in North Carolina. On top of teaching full-time, the WWII veteran also worked throughout the summer months at a country club and took other odd jobs to support her children, Cynthia and David.
“It was very difficult. But my determination was to see this thing through,” says Johnson. “I thought I don't care what happens, I'm going to make sure that I give them the best education I can.”
Her daughter, Cynthia Scott, said that it was “it was hard to see her have to work that hard to make ends meet.” However, her mother’s determination never ceased to amaze her.
“She's a mother— and she was going to do whatever it took to get her kids the things they needed,” Cynthia tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “To see everything that she's been through, you just have to stand back and look at it in awe— everything that she's accomplished and done on top of being a single parent raising two children. I just have to stand back in amazement that she was able to do that.”
After 32 years of teaching, Johnson eventually settled down in Hickory, N.C., to help Cynthia raise her two daughters, Shandra and Tiffany. Throughout her retirement, Johnson continued to help and educate young students, volunteering as a tutor in her granddaughter’s school district 17 years.
After Cynthia learned about WSSU’s plans to present her mother with an honorary degree at the 2019 commencement, she planned to surprise her mother with the news on her 99th birthday.
“We are inspired by you and excited to give you the opportunity, 70 years later, to walk across the stage at this year’s commencement,” Dr. Darryl Scriven, dean of WSSY’s College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education, told Johnson at her birthday party on May 2.
After hearing the news, Johnson says she could hardly believe it. “I thought everything was all over and that I was just here. I didn't expect to get anything,” Johnson tells Yahoo. “[Receiving the cap and gown], I felt that it's not happening, that this was all a dream. But it's real! It’s fantastic.”
At the party, Cynthia says the whole family became emotional seeing Johnson cry after hearing the good news.
“It's very emotional and well-deserved. We're just very proud of the fact that this is something that she is going to finally get to receive.” says Cynthia.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s other granddaughter, Tiffany, is grateful that her grandmother finally got to have the special honor.
“She's a very quiet person, but she's done all of this and so much more. She's been an inspiration to so many people, she definitely inspired me,” says Tiffany, adding that her decision to serve in the Navy was inspired by Johnson. “I'm just grateful that she's finally getting recognized, that she finally gets to have her moment in the spotlight.”
“Everything I went through was worth it — indeed it was. I feel like I succeeded,” says Johnson.
“From serving her country during World War II to impacting the lives of hundreds of students as a classroom teacher in North Carolina and Virginia, PFC Elizabeth Barker Johnson is the embodiment of Winston-Salem State’s motto, ‘Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve,’” said Elwood L. Robinson, WSSU’s chancellor. “We are inspired by her and excited to give her the opportunity, 70 years later, to finally walk across stage for commencement.”
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