Teachers change the world, and a double HBCU graduate of both South Carolina State University and Claflin University has dedicated her life to proof it. Learn more in the story by The Times & Democrat correspondent Donna Holman.

In the early 1950s, her connections with Trinity United Methodist Church in Orangeburg and her involvement as a strong female leader with the YWCA at South Carolina State College led DeLaris Johnson, a newly graduated young Black woman with an interest in history and sociology, to attend Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the time, religious leaders in the Methodist Church wanted to challenge the racist principles that were prevalent throughout the United States and allow integration at their denominational school, Scarritt College.

“I wanted to work after my graduation from State so that I could afford to go to a college outside of S.C. I had planned to go to Syracuse and I wanted to major in social work, working with people through a welfare agency. However, Scarritt did not offer that type of social work. They had social group work. I did that for a year,” said Johnson, who explained that after they sent her out to do field work and she ended up basically entertaining young children in an after-school center until their parents picked them up, she had to do something to focus on the major that she really wanted where she could serve people in need. Playing “ring around the rosies” with a group of children was not using her talents to their fullest.

“I could not see myself doing that the rest of my life, so I talked to the head of the department at Scarritt,” said Johnson adding that Peabody Teacher’s College had a major in sociology, but they had not integrated.

After discussions took place between heads of the two schools, Johnson said she was allowed to attend classes at Peabody on a trial basis and things went well. The first day of classes were a bit tense as the students passed by her desk not speaking as they entered the classroom.

“I got there early and found my seat. I wanted to sit near the door as usual on the front row. He (the professor) began his lecture. I took my notes and every now and then, we had a little discussion. At the dismissal, the students had to pass by me to get out and they spoke,” Johnson said smiling.

“They didn’t speak coming in, but they spoke now, and they welcomed me. And I said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ From then on, it was smooth sailing,” said the 92 year old, remembering her experience seven decades ago.

In 1952, Johnson, from Orangeburg, and Lelia Robinson from Texas, made history by becoming the first two black students at the Methodist-affiliated institution for higher learning. The former Scarritt College has now become the Scarritt Bennett Center, which is a religious retreat located in the famous Midtown Music Row in Nashville. In April of this year, officials at the center held a ribbon-cutting ceremony announcing that one of the houses on the campus would be named the Johnson Robinson House in honor of these courageous women. The building will be available to dignitaries to stay when they visit the center.

“It was 70 years ago these two Black women made history. Ms. Risher, from Orangeburg, S.C. and Ms. Dabbs, from Austin, Texas, quietly and boldly made a radical change in Methodism and higher education throughout the nation,” said the Rev. Sondrea Tolbert, executive director of the Scarritt Bennett Center.

“This is a time in the history of the Scarritt Bennett Center and the whole of Nashville witness this historic occasion by dedicating this house on campus named in the honor for service to humanity and acknowledging they risked their lives in crossing the color line,” said Tolbert.

Because of Johnson’s strength and courage to pursue the field in which she had interest, Scarritt, Peabody and Vanderbilt were all allowed to integrate as students enrolled at one school could attend classes at the other two. Once she was allowed to go to classes at Peabody, her willingness to be the first African American to do so opened the door for others to follow.

“It’s very similar to the set up at Atlanta University, Spelman and Morehouse. If you attend one, you may take courses at the other two toward your degree,” she explained.

Johnson was born in Conway and moved to Orangeburg with her family as a teenager. She finished her secondary education at Wilkinson High School and went on to SC State, where she obtained her undergraduate degree in social studies. She attended Scarritt College and its two sister schools, Peabody Teachers College and Vanderbilt University from 1952-1954, ultimately receiving her master’s degree in sociology. Returning to Orangeburg, the ambitious and determined young lady went to classes at both Claflin College and SC State simultaneously to get her certification in elementary education.

After marrying Modie Risher Sr. in 1959, she continued her education while doing her post-graduate studies in psychology in Brooklyn, New York. Her husband, even though he has passed on, remains affectionately known as a longtime Burke High School coach from the Charleston area. As a married woman, Johnson Risher went on to acquire even more knowledge as she attended the Citadel, in Charleston, in the summers and evenings earning her masters plus thirty-hour certification by doing post graduate work in US history, American foreign policy and political science. Although she proudly served as a classroom teacher here, in the Palmetto State, at various schools in the lowcountry, she also spent some time in New Mexico teaching at the Navajo Indian School in Farmington and even worked at the graduate level with clinical teachers and preservice teachers both at Claflin and at the Citadel.

Johnson Risher retired after 35 years of service as an educator and counselor. She has two children, Modie L. Risher Jr. and DeVonne Risher Smalls, who is married to James E. Smalls, I. Her grandchildren are James E. Smalls II and Dr. DeAna S. Smalls. She has held memberships and offices in numerous teaching associations and is a member of Phi Delta Kappa Honor Fraternity as well as Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Among her many honors and awards, Johnson Risher became a licensed deaconess for the United Methodist Church in 1955, received Teacher of the Year in 1970 and has been recognized for holding the distinct honor at Scarritt Graduate School as the first African American student to graduate from the institution in 1954.

Johnson Risher shared the story of how she found out about the Scarritt Bennett Center offer to name a building after her.

“It’s strange how I found out. The funeral home in Charleston called me,” she said adding with a chuckle, “I was thinking, ‘They must think I’m dead.’”

She was told that a college in Nashville had found her name from her husband’s funeral program and that they had been trying to get in touch with her. The funeral home said that it happens all the time — people who are seeking to reconnect with others often find the connection in the obituaries as names of relatives are listed.

Johnson Risher said that after graduation, she was on the board of Scarritt and she would make frequent visits to the college with her husband. But in later years when Modie’s sight and health began to fail, she would not travel without him as she did not want to leave him. As a result, she had lost contact with the college over the years.

“It has been 70 years since my graduation, so I was in shock. I thought they really had forgotten me, and this new director who had been on the job a couple of months decided that this was the number one thing she wanted to do at Scarritt,” Johnson Risher said.

“I am honored,” she said humbly.