Where do you want to fly?
Nearly a decade after his death, Robert W. Johnson’s legacy continues to live on through the Hagerstown community center that bears his name.
Johnson was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a 33-year Washington County educator, coach and role model for local youth.
As Black History Month begins, Herald-Mail Media talked with Johnson’s wife, Patricia, as well as former students and officials at the community center who shared memories and thoughts about how his life has continued to resonate in Hagerstown.
Johnson, who died in 2009 at age 82, was described as a kind-hearted gentleman, a family man and someone who would stop at nothing to help others, especially his family, students and players.
“Bob Johnson was iconic,” city Councilman Lew Metzner said. “He was just an unbelievable man.”
Metzner, a local attorney and a councilman for nearly 25 years, said he played football at North Hagerstown High School for Johnson, who was the first African-American teacher and coach in the county after schools were integrated in 1956.
Parker Watson, a North High classmate of Metzner’s who also graduated in 1970, recalled growing up on the same street as Johnson’s family in the Jonathan Street neighborhood. He said he got to know his wife, known to everyone as “Tish,” and their four children very well.
“He was a man’s man at all times,” said Watson, who also described Johnson as a genuine, loyal and down-to-earth person who was quick to lend his attention and a listening ear.
Watson, who now resides in Springfield, Va., said he, too, played sports under the man many knew simply as “Coach.” Johnson coached baseball, basketball and football over his nearly two decades at North High.
“He was real instrumental for us growing up, athletic-wise as well as scholastically,” Watson said. “I have real fond memories of him. And I always called him ‘coach.'”
‘A fine, fine gentleman’
Robert William Johnson was born Aug. 12, 1926 in Sheridan, Pa., a small town between Harrisburg and Reading.
After graduating from an integrated high school in 1944, he was challenged by a friend who attended an all-black school to take the military test. His high marks led him to enlist as an aviation cadet with the U.S. Air Force.
Robert Johnson finished basic training and radio school in 1945, then was shipped out to train as a pilot at the Tuskegee Army Air Field base in Alabama during the waning years of World War II. As a Tuskegee airman, he was part of the group known as the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed forces.
“His class was probably the last class of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Tish Johnson said. “And the reason he didn’t fight or go to war was because the war ended.”
In his brief tenure in the military, Robert Johnson earned the rank of lieutenant. He was honorably discharged in late 1945 to attend Morgan College in Baltimore, where he later earned his degree in health and physical education.
Tish Johnson said her husband first came to Hagerstown in 1950 when he was hired to teach and coach at the former North Street School, an all-black school just next door to the present-day community center on West North Avenue.
As a high school junior, Tish Johnson recalled not liking “Mr. Johnson” very much back then, saying she thought he was “very mean,” but following graduation, things changed. The two started dating, married a couple years later “and the rest was history,” she said.
The couple have four children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
“Just as people saw him, he was the same way at home,” Tish Johnson said. “He had a very nice personality. … He was just a fine, fine gentleman. I don’t know how I became so blessed to be his wife for 57 years.”
What’s in a name
In 2013, Robert Johnson’s legacy was memorialized when officials at the then-Memorial Recreation Center decided to rename the center in his honor, driven largely by a groundswell of community support.
At that time, the word “recreation” was replaced with “community,” something board members say was both necessary to help secure funding support but also to better reflect the center’s mission.
Carolyn Sterling, vice president of the center’s board of directors, said everyone in the community knows what Robert Johnson stood for and the board continues to embrace his mindset and values as they guide the center into its sixth decade.
“His legacy just continues to live on,” she said.
While this year marks 51 years since the community center became an incorporated entity, the building at 109 W. North Ave., dates back to 1888. It first served as an all-black school when county schools were still segregated.
Around the time the North Street School opened, the center was converted to the black YMCA in 1947.
In 1968, the center incorporated as a nonprofit organization known as the Memorial Recreation Center. From 1980 to 2005, under the leadership of then-Executive Director Ruth Ann Monroe, the center began to offer after-school, summer camp and recreational programs.
Longtime board member Gary Graves, who attended the same church as the Johnson family, said renaming it after Robert Johnson had an immediate impact that’s contributed to added visibility for the center.
“When you think of community centers, Boys and Girls Club and Girls Inc. are always prominent because they’re national organizations … where we’re a center down here in the Jonathan Street area,” he said. “We don’t get near the publicity or visibility that we should.
“Even if they don’t know what we do at the center, they know his name,” Graves said. “His name is recognized.”
The center currently serves close to 50 children in its after-school program. Summer camps are typically capped at 80 kids, often with at least 20 more on waiting lists each year, according to Naomia Evans, program director at the center.
Robert Johnson is remembered as a positive role model during his time as a teacher and coach, but it wasn’t uncommon for many young men to see him as a father figure in their lives as well.
“He’s very family oriented, very community oriented,” Evans said. “My father went to North High with his children as well, and he said Mr. Bobby was like a parent to a lot of young males at North High. He was like a father to them.”
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Johnson was a steadying force for youth of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
Metzner recalled an interaction when he asked three of his black football teammates if they had experienced any racism over their four years at North High.
“They’re answer was ‘never,'” he said. “Bob Johnson today would look back and see the strides he made as a black man, from these achievements being the first black coach … but when we were in high school, coach wasn’t a black coach or a black teacher. He was just a teacher and a coach. We never looked at Bob Johnson and looked at color. It didn’t exist for us.
“It’s only into our adult years that we look back and realize the achievements that man had in his lifetime,” Metzner said.
After earning his masters equivalency in 1974, Robert Johnson became the first black man to become an administrator in the county school system, accepting an assistant principal position at Hagerstown’s E. Russell Hicks Middle School. He served in that capacity until retirement in 1983.
Five years later, Robert Johnson became the first black person to be inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was an educator and coach extraordinaire, and most importantly, he was an extraordinary human being,” Metzner said.
‘This is home’
And even though he was a man of “firsts,” Robert Johnson hardly put himself above others.
That’s a mantra that remains a constant at the community center today, officials said, especially as they reflected on the current state of civil rights and equality both locally and across the country.
“It’s come a long ways obviously since the days that Coach Johnson was first involved and coaching at North High, but there’s still in Washington County a certain degree of prejudice and racism,” said Graves, speaking as a white member of the center’s board. “… In some cases, I think the fact that this center is located where it is” has a negative connotation to certain segments of the local population.
As racial issues continue to be a talking point on the national landscape, board President Jessica Scott said there’s been “some progress,” but there continues to be biases and profiling by various entities, like the media and law enforcement agencies, that continue to plague black communities.
“There’s still some work that needs to be done,” she said. “These youth, these children still feel it. They deal with it every day.”
Sterling quickly chimed in.
“That’s another reason why the community center is so important,” she said. “They have a place they can come and know they are somebody. If they don’t hear it at home or at school, they hear it here. They have staff that love and care about them.
“Some people say this is a second home,” Sterling said. “Maybe for some of these children, this is home.”