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Vivian R. Johnson

Retired educator Vivian R. Johnson was born in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Los Angeles, California where she graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1952 and entered the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1955, she became the first African American elected as a Women’s Representative on the Student Council. Influenced by the UCLA University Religious Conference (URC), Johnson was chosen to participate in the URC sponsored Project India in 1953 where she worked with Indian students to build a one-room school house in a village near Calcutta, India. Following receipt of her B.A. degree in English/Speech from UCLA in 1956 and a year of graduate studies, she traveled to the East Coast with her husband, Willard R. Johnson. For four years, she served as a scholarship assistant placing students from newly independent African nations in American universities for the Africa-American Institute in Washington, D.C. and Harvard University’s African Scholarship Program of American Universities.

From 1968 to 1972, Johnson served as a social studies curriculum writer for the Newton Massachusetts Public Schools. In Boston, Massachusetts, she founded a resource center on African American culture and directed Reading is Yours to Keep, Inc. from 1973 to 1978 in which parents were trained to tutor students. In 1974, she received the Certificate of Advanced Study and in 1975 the Doctorate in Education in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

From 1976 to 1980, Johnson served as a consultant to a number of educational institutions including multicultural film evaluation for WGBH Boston, curriculum development for University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University College and school-staff development for Boston University’s African Studies Outreach Program. After serving as Co-Coordinator of the Collaborative Planning Study for the College and University Planning Program with the Boston Public Schools, in 1980, Johnson began a six-year tenure as the Campus Coordinator for Boston University School of Medicine’s Strengthening Health Delivery Systems Program operating in twenty countries in central and west Africa.

In 1987, Johnson was a Scholar in Residence at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy, where she completed the book West African governments and volunteer development organizations : priorities for partnership, co-authored with her husband. In 1989, she joined the faculty at Boston University’s School of Education as an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Administration, Training and Policy Studies. During her time at Boston University, Johnson received the prestigious Fulbright Summer Seminar Award to study multicultural education in Indonesia.

After retiring from Boston University as Associate Professor Emerita in 2003, Johnson’s work in her specialties continued. In 2005, she joined her colleagues in teaching a summer course in Geneva, Switzerland, and she co-authored a book on family, school and community partnership in education published in 2007.

Throughout her career, Johnson has been involved with numerous civic organizations including serving on the Board of Directors of the Trust for Public Land, National Audubon Society, Oxfam America and the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

Vivian R. Johnson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on September 13, 2007.

Accession Number




Interview Date

9/13/2007 |and| 10/11/2012



Last Name


Maker Category
Marital Status



Polytechnic High School

Ralph F. Wilson Elementary School

Betsy Ross Elementary School

University of California, Los Angeles

Harvard Graduate School of Education

First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Favorite Season




Favorite Vacation Destination

Africa, Mexico

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food


Short Description

Education professor Vivian R. Johnson (1935 - ) was a member of the faculty at Boston University’s School of Education as an associate clinical professor in the Department of Administration, Training, and Policy Studies.


Boston University. School of Education

Africa-America Institute

Harvard University African Scholarship Program of American Universities

Newton Massachusetts School District

Resource Center on African American Culture

Reading Is Yours To Keep, Inc.


Kenyatta University College

University of Nairobi

Boston University. African Studies Outreach Program

Boston Public Schools

Boston University. School of Medicine

Rockefeller Foundation

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Vivian R. Johnson's interview, session 1

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers researching her family history

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her maternal family's move to Muscogee, Oklahoma

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her mother's upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her family's interest in African American history

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers reading African American newspapers

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her mother's experiences in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her father's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her father's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her father's career

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls how her mother and stepfather met

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers moving to Los Angeles, California

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the segregation of schools in the South

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls her maternal grandfather's role in the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her elementary school experiences

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Birdielee V. Bright

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls her aspirations to become a teacher

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her early interest in reading

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls her interest in theater

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the neighborhood of West Los Angeles

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, California

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls joining the debate team

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her involvement with the debate team

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers her prom dress

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls graduating from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her brother, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her brother, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the Stevens House at the University of California, Los Angeles

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the Panel of Americans at the University of California, Los Angeles

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Project India, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Project India, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls her experiences in Paris, France

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her first impressions of India

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Adeline Gunther

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Lillian Granderson

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls assisting a student from Malawi

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls learning about colonial independence movements

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the poverty in India

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Slating of Vivian R. Johnson's interview, session 2

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls returning to the University of California, Los Angeles

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers marrying Willard Johnson

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her mentors at the University of California, Los Angeles

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her early career in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls working with the Circle Associates

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers her interest in African American history

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her husband's early career

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the Circle Associates' resource center

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the desegregation of Boston Public Schools, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the desegregation of Boston Public Schools, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls the success of Reading is Yours to Keep

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson explains her challenges with the Boston Public Schools

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls coordinating an international public health program, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls coordinating an international public health program, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers studying international development organizations

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about the American Museum of Negro History in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Sue Bailey Thurman

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her interest in Boston's African American history

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about the Institute for Responsive Education

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers Dr. James Comer

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls teaching at Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson remembers training teachers in Portugal

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls conducting education research abroad

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her experiences abroad

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her success as a teacher trainer

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the Trust for Public Land

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about Tremont Crossing, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about Tremont Crossing, pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her work with international students

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Vivian R. Johnson recalls her retirement from Boston University

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her collaborations with WBGH-TV

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her book, 'Beyond the Bake Sale'

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about the Young People's Project

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - Vivian R. Johnson describes the Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Tape: 9 Story: 9 - Vivian R. Johnson describes her concerns for the African American community

Tape: 9 Story: 10 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her older daughter

Tape: 9 Story: 11 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her younger daughter

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Vivian R. Johnson reflects upon her life

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Vivian R. Johnson talks about her daughters' international travels

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Vivian R. Johnson describes how she would like to be remembered







Vivian R. Johnson remembers Birdielee V. Bright
Vivian R. Johnson recalls coordinating an international public health program, pt. 1
Yeah, we were talking about Miss Bright's [Birdielee V. Bright] class and--$$Yes, the marvels of Miss Bright's class. Miss Bright not only insisted that you be helpful to others, but she provided all the support each of us needed; everything, anything she could do to make certain that you learned, was done, and Miss Bright taught us the skills that we have carried throughout our lives in, in a number of areas; let me give one example. There was no library in our local elementary school [36th Street School; Birdielee V. Bright Elementary School, Los Angeles, California], and so we were lined up and walked to the public library that was, I would estimate, let's call it, six or seven blocks from our school. Before going to the public library, we had a library skills class that I (laughter), I have drawn on forever because Miss Bright not only taught us the Dewey Decimal System [Dewey Decimal Classification] and what it was and why it was, but she helped us to imagine interest that we didn't already have; we knew that we had specific goals for that library visit, but she would then let us think about, or influence us to think about, the Dewey Decimal System as a way of imagining all of the knowledge that you can examine in the world, and so therefore, her ability to capture your imagination and to take you inside yourself in a way that you could dream and reach was just extraordinary. She did that also about our little garden in the back of the school; that was one of our science projects. And so you were encouraged to learn about how things grow in terms of growth--your own growth, the growth of cities, changes in environments, so when I think about climate change now, I smile and I think about how Miss Bright would teach about climate change because everything she taught was done in this context of you and your development, and your development was connected always to the development of your family and your community, and your community was the world. So she was just an extraordinary (laughter) human being, gifted in all kinds of ways--gifted instructionally, and I'm an educator and I know how important that is--but gifted motivationally so that she could literally inspire on a daily basis, and she did. She was also a no-nonsense person. You did not, quote, waste time in Miss Bright's class, and she said the reason that you don't waste time is that it is yours, and you don't waste what you have. These are things (laughter) that we learned, as I said, in the fourth--and of course we were terrified of her--terrified. We--I, I would visit her later on in Los Angeles [California], and I would tell her how terrified we were, and she said, "I would see you sitting there, all of you, quaking, and I thought, all right, now I've gotten their attention" (laughter). So she had a marvelous sense of humor, she knew what she was doing, and she did it very well.$$Now, did she use corporal punishment where they--$$Occasionally, I think she did. I think she rapped on some knuckles, but she was not a--an abusive human being in any way, shape or form; abuse was not what she was about. What she was about was development of the human spirit, development of specific skills, learning in the traditional sense, and learning beyond the school house.$Nineteen eighty [1980] you started--$$In 1980, I was asked by Dr. David French [David M. French] at the Boston University School of Medicine [Boston, Massachusetts] to become his campus coordinator, the backup person at Boston University, because he was conducting a primary health care training program in twenty countries in West Africa, and he needed someone who would run the office at Boston University because he had his office established in Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire, Ivory Coast, and he needed to have a coordinator who would take care of all of the administration of that program back at Boston University. I began doing that in 1980 and continued until the program ended in 1986, and it was really a challenging and very interesting experience. The program required that nurses be given additional training, and those nurses were brought to the United States, and if they were English-speaking, they went to the Boston University School of Nursing [Boston, Massachusetts]; if they were French-speaking, and many of them were--incidentally, there were fifteen francophone countries and five Anglophone countries--they went to Montreal [Canada]. So I was in fact paying the expenses--all of the, the fees and, and all of the expenses for nurses in two universities for six years, and those nurses received their training, went back to their countries, and were then able to open clinics in other parts--more--in remote parts of the country. They had come from the urban hospital centers, and now they were trained to work in the remote areas. The program was very successful; it had been requested, incidentally, by the twenty ministers of health of those countries, and it was requested of World Health Organization who in turn requested funding from our state department--from the U.S. state department [U.S. Department of State]. So the program had, in that sense, many people who were interested in and enthusiastic about it, and what David wanted was someone who would report to most of those actors so that he could get on with the program, and that's what I did for six years. I also got all of the equipment out to the field because the U.S. Congress requires that we buy American equipment; also that we fly over the Atlantic [Atlantic Ocean] and Pacific [Pacific Ocean] on American-owned carriers, so that all of the arrangements for travel, the arrangements for vehicles, the arrangements for computers had to be made in this country and all those things shipped to Abidjan. I went to Abidjan about once every three months, and literally connected the office in Abidjan, including office management and benefits, with Boston University; it was a very complex and unusual arrangement.$$So this is, this is every, every three months for six years.$$That's right.$$And--now, you were telling me you had, you had to deal with about twelve boxes of (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) That's right; I had to take--$$--papers.$$That's right. I had to take office equipment material--remember, this is the Boston University, so it's gotta have Boston University stationery; it is a Boston (laughter) University office in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. So, in order to make that office act like a Boston University office, with all of its procedures and regulations and so on, we took materials--I took materials actually on the plane, flying from Boston [Massachusetts] through Paris [France] and, and then to Abidjan, and I took about ten or a dozen boxes with me every time. And the miracle is that in six years, I never lost a box--not even delayed.

Jeff Donaldson

Jeff Donaldson is an African American artist, art historian, and critic who has helped to articulate the philosophy and aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement in the United States. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a black college town, in 1937, Donaldson was three when his older brother started drawing. This encouraged him to start drawing cartoons and comic books as well.

Donaldson's love of the arts continued, and upon enrolling in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he established the school's first arts major. Here, his lifelong interest in Afrocentric art was nurtured under the tutelage of John Howard, who mentored under the great Harlem Renaissance artist Hale Woodruff. After graduating with a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Donaldson obtained a Ph.D. in African and African American Art History from Northwestern University.

Through his involvement with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group Donaldson helped form in Chicago, he organized the visual arts workshop that painted the Wall of Respect in 1967. The mural celebrated significant African Americans and set in motion a movement of outdoor murals painted in United States cities throughout the 1970s. Along with Wadsorth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and other African American artists, Donaldson founded AfriCobra (an acronym for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago in 1968. AfriCobra established its objectives in developing a new African American aesthetics as well as its commitment to the principles of social responsibility, involvement of artists in their local communities, and promotion of pride in Black self-identity.

As a painter, Donaldson has participated in over 200 group and solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. He has written numerous critical essays and has served as the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University. Donaldson also served as Vice President of the Board of Directors of The Barnes Foundation and was on the Board of Directors of the National Center for Afro-American Artists.

Jeff Donaldson passed away on February 29, 2004 at the age of 71.

Accession Number




Archival Photo 1
Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category
Middle Name



Merrill Junior High School

Merrill High School

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Illinois Institute of Technology

Northwestern University

Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name


Birth City, State, Country

Pine Bluff



Favorite Season

All Seasons Except Winter



Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food

Peas (Black-Eyed)

Death Date


Short Description

Painter Jeff Donaldson (1932 - 2004 ) was one of the founders of the artists' group AFRI-COBRA. Donaldson helped articulate the Black Arts Movement in the United States. His influential work as a muralist began with Wall of Respect, a 1967 project in Chicago.


Marshall High School Art Dept

Northeastern Illinois State University

Northwestern University

Howard University College of Fine Arts

Favorite Color

All Colors

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating for the Jeff Donaldson interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson identifies five favorite things

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his mother's background and the family's pride

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson shares his mother's "mythology" about his father who died when he was four

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson tells stories about his legendary grandfather, John Donaldson

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson identifies his siblings and talks about his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson shares childhood memories of Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson discusses himself as a student

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson recalls creating his own comic books as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses an influential teacher and the limits of black ambition

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson recalls choosing to study art at Arkansas A. M. and N. and the creation of an art major there

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about schools in Pine Bluff and his drawing in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson relates the migration of his family while he remained in Arkansas for college

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson describes his social life at Arkansas AM&N

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson discusses segregated black schools teaching black history and pride

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the influence of his mentor John Howard

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his mother's activism

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson talks about the black artists Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Prophet and his mentor John Howard

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson recalls studying philosophy with George G. M. James at Arkansas AM&N College

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson credits weaving instructor Ivy Foster with teaching him discipline

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson shares observations from teaching in Mississippi in the late 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his time in the Army in Virginia and France

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson relates experiences with art, American expatriates and Africans while serving in France

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson describes studying design at Illinois Institute of Technology

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson identifies Chicago artists in OBAC, a black artistic movement

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the Wall of Respect, FBI disruption of OBAC and the mural movement

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the forming of AFRICOBRA and FBI tactics to create conflict in black activist groups

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about AFRICOBRA

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson talks about AFRICOBRA's meetings and preparation for FESTAC '77

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the relevance of the critical art movements

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson talks about the connection between the black arts and black power movements

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson describes Chicago as a tough, energetic, creative place

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson talks about getting the first PhD in African American art history

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the current AFRICOBRA members

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson argues for honoring slave insurrection leaders

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson compares violent and nonviolent means in the struggle

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson tells of encounters with government agents and intimidation

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson discusses AFRICOBRA's relations with the U.S. State Department over FESTAC

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson details his experiences at FESTAC in Nigeria

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson discusses modern Nigeria and its rich history

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his years at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the sense of oneness he found between Africa and the diaspora

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson analyzes the closeness between American blacks and whites

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson comments on American impatience

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his experiences as an instructor at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson recalls actors who graduated from Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson comments on why he left Howard University after many years

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Jeff Donaldson talks about famous musicians at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his thoughts on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the evolution of his painting style

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his artwork and other contemporary African American artists in Chicago

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson gives advice to the African American artist and comments how he sees himself in that role

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his hopes for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson comments on his belief in reparations

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered







Jeff Donaldson tells stories about his legendary grandfather, John Donaldson
Jeff Donaldson discusses the Wall of Respect, FBI disruption of OBAC and the mural movement
What do you know about his family? Did you have much inter--much interaction?$$(Simultaneously) Oh yes, indeed.$$Okay.$$He [Jeff Donaldson's father, Sidney Frank Donaldson] had nineteen brothers and sisters. And my grandfather, a legendary farmer and, and I guess, sire. He married two women. He had four children by my father's mother. And then he had subsequently sixteen by a second wife after his first wife died. But he was a legendary figure in, in Alabama and Arkansas. I'll give you one little anecdote. In the South--or I guess in any farm country they have a tradition of laying by one-half of the land. That is they don't cultivate one-half of the land during one planting season so that the land can rest and rejuvenate itself. So they have to clear the new land each year. And he would wait until everybody had assembled with their horses and their tractors, tractors and chains to pull up the roots after the trees had been cut. And then he would go out there, take off his shirt, and pull up one of the stumps with his bare hands. Another time he was said to have gone into the woods--always with people around, and taunted and challenged a bear to charge him. And he had two daggers in his hands. And when the bear charged, he raised his arms so that the bear could hug him and then he comes down on both sides with the knife. And he never had to go back to the farm to work at all during any of those seasons after doing those kinds of things.$$And his name?$$John.$$John Donaldson.$$He was quite a man. He was born in slavery. And--I guess he was maybe enslaved for about fifteen years. This is not a great grandfather. This is my grandfather. My dad was about 50, 51, 52 years old when I was born. But he was able to convince the man that had bought him away from the original family that was a King Plantation from the Carolinas--he was able to convince the guy who bought him whose name was Donaldson to bring his mother and his sisters into that slave family. Later on, one of his sisters was assaulted and he and his brother took care of that guy, to the extent that he would never do that again. And the guy who had been his "owner"--quote, unquote--helped him to get out of Ar-- Alabama. He and his brother. And they ended up in Arkansas. And his brother became a physician. Changed his name and became, became a physician. But my grandfather didn't change his name and remained a farmer, kept the same name. He was a pretty tough guy.$People in the A.A.C.M. [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] were very, very close to the group that--well, first of all, let me explain about OBAC [Organization of Black American Culture]. We had a meeting at the Lincoln Center in which I introduced the idea of a Visual Art Workshop and invited photographers and artists to come. And that's was the group. The OBAC Visual Art Workshop that began meeting. We--my idea was to start a school of art. To bring together all these artists, see what we all shared in terms of the visualization and try to see if we can use those things that we had in common. And create something that was distinctly ours, that-- a school, a style. And the only thing really we could agree on was the fact that we wanted to use our talents in the interests of the movement. So the Wall of Respect project became an ideal project, I thought would bring the group together and perhaps we could after that establish a, a movement or a school. But I did not anticipate what went on in 1967 in Chicago when the FBI started something called COINTELPRO. We--You know, that was a guerri--guerilla mural--mural. In other words we didn't ask permission to paint the building. The building was owned by a guy who didn't live in the neighborhood, who didn't come in the neighborhood. So we just commandeered it. And painted it. He came by after we started it because, you know, there was a great deal of publicity generated in the local press. And it went from there to the 'Washington Post', 'New York Times' and even stories in 'Der Spiegel' in Germany and all kinds--all over the world, actually. It became bigger than anything any of us had ever envisioned. People were coming from every place to look. And at that time, 1967, J. Edgar Hoover began something called COINTELPRO. Counter Intelligence Propaganda. And they invaded groups like Students of the Democratic Society [Students for a Democratic Society], the white group, the Weathermen, and they also infiltrated all the black groups that they could infiltrate. And the idea was to use an old communist trick--to get into a group, create dissension within group, and let them destroy each other. And that's what happened to the OBAC Visual Art Workshop. We imploded after that wall was completed. What started out as a extreme camaraderie and fraternity and brotherhood and sisterhood turned into meetings where we were all packing hate. Because we would get letters purporting to, to identify people as spies, as informants and stuff, and "The next time you get up on that scaffold to paint, you'll be shot down." And all kinds of things. One guy showed up with a new car. And everybody was then given the impression that he had taken a big chunk of money from Sammy Davis, Jr. because Sammy Davis, Jr. was gonna do a commercial in front of the wall to promote Robert Kennedy's candidacy for president. So that was another thing. So ultimately the Organization of Black American Culture Visual Art Workshop imploded. Because we had all kinds of people coming to the meetings and expressing all kinds of weird things--people who were not involved with the wall at all. But what happened was after that, over the next three or four years, more than 1200 of these murals were done in every major city in the country. Particularly in the North, in the East and in the West. And a few in the South. And it has spread even into other areas of the world. For example the Europeans give us credit for having started the street mural thing that encourages revolution and, and, and retribution, not revenge. And celebrating. Actually ours was just a celebration of the greatness of black people. It was a Negro history mural really. But the fact that it was done outside on a two story building 60 feet long and 30 feet high made Mayor [Richard J.] Daley and the powers that be in, in Chicago very uncomfortable. And [Congressman] Ralph Metcalfe chose the Wall of Respect, you know, to announce his break with the re--[Chicago] Democratic machine. Shortly after that, that whole area was condemned and that building was torn down that had the Wall of Respect on it. And of course the neighborhood was in a tizzy over that. And so the city promised that they would build a recreational center or something there and do all kinds of things on that site. And as of today [2001] that's a vacant spot at 47th [sic, 43rd] and Langley in Chicago. There's a little plaque that's almost overgrown with weeds talking about that's where the Wall of Respect was.$$So can you talk about--a little bit about--'cause it is a high I'm sure--$$(Simultaneously) Oh yeah.$$(Simultaneously)--in the group when you were doing it.$$(Simultaneously) Yeah.$$And can you talk about that?$$Yeah. Haki [Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee] and the poets from OBAC would come out and recite. Gwen [Gwendolyn] Brooks wrote a poem about the wall. She recited at the wall. The A.ACM would play. Darlene Blackburn and her group would dance. Kuumba [Theatre Company] would come out and emote. We had crowds like people going to a rock show watching us paint. There's a picture in 'Ebony'--I'll show you when we're finished--that shows you the kind of, of, of crowd that came out daily to see what was going on. Now it's ironic that when we went to this site, the only thing on that wall was a gang tag identifying that it's a gang's turf. That gang never left. And they never disturbed us working. As a matter of fact, we were able to leave our scaffold up, our paints and our brushes and everything in situ on the spot overnight. Nobody ever touched any paint. Nobody ever touched a ladder. Nobody touched the scaffold, anything. And when the project was completed, the gang started to extort money from people to come and look at the wall. Even the photographers who came to take pictures of the, the wall that they had the pictures on. It actually Nishi- Nitchi, Nitshi, what's the German uh--$$Ni--Ni--$$[Friedrich Wilhelm] Nietzsche$$Right Nietzsche.$$Said there's nothing more uncontrollable than something new coming into the world. And that people who--I'm paraphrasing. But people who bring something new into the world should be aware of the fact that they don't control the consequences of that. So that Wall of Respect was a great thing that happened. And people all over the world plugged into it. Particularly groups that had a gripe. But on the home turf where it really went down it destroyed a neighborhood. Now I don't know where those people went. But they, they cleared that area out. And if you go there now, they still haven't rebuilt it. It's almost like the land is scorched earth, you know? And what happened after that was really bizarre because all the--just about all the people that I've been mentioning were offered jobs some place else. All the whole AACM went to New York. The group that's there now is the second or third generation of AACM. I was offered a job here at Howard [University] and when I got here, I got a call from somebody who didn't identify themselves who said, "Are you satisfied now? And will you keep your big mouth shut? (pause) Do you like your job? You're making a lot of money? You got a good position?"$$Hmm. That's very interesting. Hmm! You hear these things--$$Oh! It's, it's, it's absolutely true. And it wasn't just--They were equal opportunity oppressors.$$(Simultaneously) Right, it's true.$$They got everybody.$$Right. Right. So now--so you came--But you came here [to Washington, D.C.]--$$In '70 [1970].