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Long years of struggle, adversity culminate in doctorate for Syracuse University student Henia Johnson
Long years of struggle, adversity culminate in doctorate for Syracuse University student Henia JohnsonMay 04, 2001Cynthia J. Moritzcjmoritz@syr.edu
Friday, May 11, is Henia Johnson’s 52nd birthday, and she is surprised to see it. “I never thought I would live to be 52,” she says with a shake of the head. But not only has Johnson lived this long, she has triumphed over some very long odds. On May 13, she will receive her doctorate in sociology from The Maxwell School of Syracuse University at SU’s 147th Commencement. Johnson started life in Wheeling, W.Va.., one of three children born to a teenage single mother. Her mother left when Johnson and her brothers were very small, and they were taken in by two older women whom they called Big Mama and Aunt Sarah. Neither of the women was related to them by blood. “My brothers and I were really raised by the community,” Johnson says. “The elders of our community assumed responsibility and took care of the children who needed it.” Over the years, other children whose parents were absent for one reason or another were added to the household, and they all became “cousins.” The home Big Mama and Aunt Sarah provided was loving but very poor. “We took turns eating,” says Johnson. “The kids would eat on Monday, and the adults would eat on Tuesday. On Sunday, they always managed it somehow so everyone could eat.” Despite the household’s poverty, the two women always made sure the children had the necessary uniforms and fees to attend Catholic school. “Big Mama and Aunt Sarah were uneducated themselves, but they valued education,” Johnson says. The elementary school Johnson first attended was all-black, but when desegregation was instituted, she switched to a bigger Catholic school where she was one of only about half a dozen black students. When she was older, Johnson was set to transfer to the public high school. But she became pregnant and was expelled for setting a bad example. She gave birth to daughter Carol at age 16, and twins Karen and Sharon a year later. Young and unmarried, she considered placing her children for adoption, but once again Big Mama and Aunt Sarah stepped in. They convinced Johnson to keep the babies and added them to their already-large household. “They were really stretched,” Johnson says.
She found it impossible to get a job without a high school diploma and raised her girls on welfare for more than 10 years. Eventually, when she was on her own, after the deaths of Big Mama and Aunt Sarah, Johnson got involved in a government program, through which she was trained and found a clerical position for $6,300 a year. “I was at rock bottom, just barely getting by,” she says. She credits her faith in God with getting her through the most difficult times. Johnson decided to earn a high school equivalency diploma but failed the test the first two times. When she passed on the third try, she celebrated by taking her girls out to McDonald’s. The diploma made it possible for her to get a new job for $9,400 a year. “We were so excited,” she says. After a few years in that position, she was able to find a job at a publishing company that paid $14,000. “We had really hit the jackpot then,” she says. “We were able to move to a better neighborhood.” At this time, Johnson realized she had attained one of her main goals–she had raised her daughters to adulthood and kept the family together through all the hard times. And her girls turned out well–they are successful in their careers as a police officer, an entrepreneur and a manager, respectively. But more importantly, “They are loving, generous and responsible women,” she says. For a few years, Johnson worked in Cleveland for the Ohio attorney general’s office, advocating for people in prison and their families. But when the administration changed in 1994, she was out of a job. That’s when she decided to pursue a college degree. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Cleveland State University in 1996, followed two years later by a master’s degree in community services at Michigan State University. Then she started looking around for a doctoral program. “I was considering several schools,” Johnson says. “What made me decide on Syracuse was the African American fellowship I was awarded.” The fellowship is administered jointly through SU’s Graduate School and the Department of African American Studies. Johnson’s advisor, sociology professor Julia Loughlin, says the program has been lucky to have her. “Superlatives aren’t good enough to describe Henia,” Loughlin says. “She’s extraordinarily motivated and hard working, and very creative.” Johnson’s doctoral degree specializations are African American women in the criminal justice system and the black family. She has sent out resumes and applications but isn’t sure where she wants to go from here–perhaps back to Cleveland, where she can be near two of her daughters and watch her 14-month-old grandson, Joshua, grow up. But before that, she plans to enjoy Commencement with her daughters. Her walk across the stage will symbolize their final triumph over all the years of struggle and deprivation. “That day will belong to us as a family,” she says.