The year of 1963 marked Willa Cofield Johnson’s 10th year as an English teacher at the all-Black Thomas S. Inborden High School in the town of Enfield in Halifax County.
The Enfield civil rights movement became increasingly active and controversial during the summer and fall of 1963 and continued into the winter of 1964, meaning it was still current when teaching contracts came up for renewal at the district committee meeting in April 1964. The prior pleasant relationship Johnson had enjoyed with Principal Williams had soured because of her civil rights activities. Williams was opposed to involvement in such activity from teachers and students.
Williams sent Johnson a letter dated March 10 advising her of seven infractions of school rules he wanted her to correct. In the April PTA meeting, a leader of the local civil rights movement stated that any person who lost their employment because of involvement in civil rights activities would be a party to an aggressive lawsuit. The following day, and despite the tension in their relationship, Williams sent Johnson a letter dated March 31 that he had seen improvement in the seven areas and would be recommending her contract be renewed for the 1964-1965 school term, on the condition she continues to show improvement. Williams signed the plaintiff’s contract prior to April’s District Committee meeting.
The case would be become known as Johnson v. Branch. The lawsuit would affect 100,000 teachers in the American South, as Black teachers were routinely fired for participating in civil rights activities. A victory for Johnson would mean protection for those current educators and future generations of Black teachers who would protest and demonstrate for the cause of civil rights.
Adapted from an essay submitted with historical marker application by Rodney D. Pierce
Image: Willa Cofield Johnson, courtesy of Freedom Days–Halifax County, 1964 by David Celeski, www.davidceleski.com
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