Missouri woman who helped integrate Memphis State dies

Saturday, January 22, 2011 | 7:03 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A classmate of Sammie Burnett Johnson, one of the eight black students who marched onto the Memphis State campus in 1959 to integrate the school, is lamenting that there is now a "missing link" in their group.

Johnson, whose funeral was Saturday in Kansas City, enrolled at Memphis State after spending a semester at the historically black LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen College.

"She really wanted an integrated atmosphere, not just at the school but in the community," Marvis Kneeland Jones of Memphis, another in the group known as the Memphis State Eight, told The Kansas City Star.

Though the students felt they had a right to attend because the university received state funding and their parents paid taxes, administrators at what is now the University of Memphis had strict rules for Johnson and her black classmates. Among them were that the students were barred from attending sporting events or joining Greek organizations, and they had to leave campus by noon each day.

"It was tough, but the community would not let us let up," Jones recalled. "The people at church always asked us to keep the faith and keep going."

Now Jones is mourning the loss of her friend. Johnson was 71 when she died Jan. 15 at her home in the Kansas City suburb of Grandview, said the Lawrence A. Jones Funeral Chapels.

"There were eight of us, but now there is a missing link," Jones said. "I said, 'Lord, you plucked out an angel, and when you did that, you picked a good one.'"

Johnson's daughter, Dianna Ward of Charlotte, N.C., told The Star her mother, whom she said had cancer, often spoke out against injustice, participated in marches and helped those in need in the years that followed.

"At the time, somebody needed to be the first, and she made that decision, even if she could lose her life," Ward said. "She said, 'I am going to do it because if I don't do it, nobody else will.'

"That was the risk they took," Ward said.

Johnson left Memphis State after a year and married her first husband. She earned her undergraduate degree from New Mexico State University and then received a master's degree in business from the University of Kansas. She taught accounting at Kansas City Kansas Community College for 19 years before retiring in 2001.

She seldom talked about the experience of integrating the university to those who met her in later years.

Kay Young, who worked alongside Johnson for about two decades, said she didn't learn her friend was one of the Memphis State Eight until they both retired.

"I had to Google her," Young told The Star. "But that is just Sammie.

"She just didn't go about bragging about things like that, but I know she was proud of what she did."

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