In Memoriam: Elizabeth Barker Johnson, 100
Elizabeth Barker Johnson died in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 23rd after a brief illness. She was 100 years old.
She was born in Elkin, N.C. in 1920 and was one of four children of Jesse and Marzella Barker. She enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps on March 11, 1943 during WWII after seeing a poster of Uncle Sam saying, “I Want You.”
Mrs. Johnson completed basic training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and was then stationed at Camp Campbell, Kentucky. She was subsequently assigned as a truck driver with Company C of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
The 855 African American women of the 6888th were deployed to the European theatre, first to England, then to France. Mail in the European theater had been backed up for several years. The women of the 6888th were given one year to fix the problem, Private First-Class Elizabeth Barker Johnson and her fellow Soldiers worked around the clock and accomplished the mission in 6 months. Johnson served as a truck driver in the unit known for their motto of “No Mail, Low Morale.”
She and hundreds of other veterans returned from the war aboard the Queen Mary. After Private First Class (PFC) Barker’s discharge at Fort Bragg in Nov. 1945, she entered then-Winston Salem State Teachers’ College, now Winston Salem State University. She is believed to be first woman to use the GI Bill at the school where she ultimately earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Education.
Ms. Johnson subsequently spent nearly four decades teaching students in North Carolina and Virginia. She met her late husband James while teaching at Patrick Central School in Spencer, Virginia. They had two children, David Johnson and Cynthia Johnson Scott.
The family moved back to North Carolina in 1959, and she continued her teaching career. Elizabeth retired from teaching in June 1985. She continued to volunteer in the school system, balancing her volunteer work with taking care of her grandchildren.
Two years ago, she sat quietly on the front row of a solemn ceremony at the Veterans Cemetery in Salisbury. She received the folded American flag during the memorial ceremony for Master Sergeant Bertha Dupree one of her fellow members of the 6888. Hundreds of veterans had showed up for the ceremony, and most took the time to meet Mrs. Johnson. Her living legend status spoke volumes to all those gathered. [News of Davidson photos]
A couple months later, her family surprised her with a big party for her 99th birthday. In addition to a room full of family and friends and great food, there were two special surprises. One was a letter from an active duty female Army general – who thanked her for her service and said that all those who serve today do so standing on the shoulders of women like PFC Elizabeth Barker Johnson.
The second surprise came from the administration of Winston Salem State University. They had seen a news story about her, and took specific interest in the fact that she had not been able to attend her own graduation in 1949 due to the fact that she was already teaching. [News of Davidson photos]
A few weeks later, Elizabeth was sitting on the stage at the WSSU commencement. She sat quietly on the front row, alongside dignitaries and speakers at the event. And based on reactions, some sitting near her didn’t have any idea who this “older” graduate in cap and gown might be.
But when the Chancellor Robinson started telling the story of an amazing woman. A woman who had served during WWII, deployed overseas, and had returned to pursue a degree a Winston Salem State Teachers College. The crowd of thousands drew quiet.
And then he shared the story that this oldest living alumna hadn’t been able to participate in her own graduation. Robinson subsequently asked her to join him for the presentation of her diploma. At that point, many people likely thought that Elizabeth would be wheeled across the stage. But no. Her walker placed in front of her, she walked with purpose toward the chancellor. And with that, the crowd was on their feet and the applause and cheers erupted in the arena. It was a ceremony that few will forget. [News of Davidson photos]
Earlier this year – prior to COVID closures – Elizabeth was in Raleigh for the North Carolina African American Veterans Lineage Day. The ceremony, held at the N.C. Museum of History, was the second such annual event. By all accounts, she was the oldest veteran in the room. In addition to receiving the Veterans Lineage coin, Elizabeth was one of a select few veterans honored with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. [News of Davidson photos]
Fast forward to May. In the midst of COVID-19, Elizabeth’s family figured out how to hold a socially-distanced, but still appropriate birthday party befitting her 100th birthday. Hundreds came to Hickory to help her celebrate. They did so in their cars, and Elizabeth sat in the shade.
Hickory Mayor Hank Guess proclaimed May 2, 2020 as Elizabeth Bernice Barker Johnson Day. And as he concluded his remarks, the sirens and horns could be heard as the drive by party began. Dozens and dozens of cars passed by – and Elizabeth smiled and waved at everyone, and laughing out loud on more than one occasion. Family and friends were joined by police officers and firefighters – with almost a dozen police, fire, and EMS vehicles in the parade.
When the parade concluded, the Mayor read the Living Legend Proclamation from the Women in Military Service to America. The museum is the only museum dedicated to women’s service in the U.S. military and is located at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery.
The Mayor then handed the microphone to Elwood L. Robinson, the Chancellor of Winston Salem State University. He reminisced about the 2019 commencement ceremony and then read a proclamation on behalf of the 28,000 alumni, faculty, staff, and students of WSSU. He noted that Elizabeth epitomizes the WSSU motto of “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.”
She also received a framed letter from Secretary Larry Hall, from the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The letter and a coin were presented by Deputy Secretary Martin Falls.
The final presentation on her birthday was a framed photo and letter from General Michael X. Garrett, the Commanding General of U.S. Army Forces Command. The two met at the African Americans Veterans Lineage Day in Raleigh. He had been honored to meet the living legend, a member of the 6888. She had been honored and amazed to meet a 4-star African American General Officer.
The party concluded with her family singing “Happy Birthday.” [News of Davidson photos]
Mrs. (PFC) Elizabeth Bernice Barker Johnson is survived by her son David Johnson, daughter Cynthia Johnson Scott, granddaughters Shandra Scott Bryant and Tiffany Scott, and great grandchildren Landon and Elizabeth.