Nearly 70 years ago World War II veteran Elizabeth Barker Johnson was faced with a tough decision. She had to choose between attending her college graduation at the risk of losing her job or going to work. Johnson—who was a teacher at the time—chose her job and sadly missed out on the opportunity to walk across the stage at the Winston-Salem State University commencement ceremony and receive her degree. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, the North Carolina-based institution reached out to Johnson and invited her to attend their upcoming graduation.
Johnson, 99, was a part of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. The group was the only all-Black woman battalion that served overseas during WW II. She was stationed in England. After returning home, she became the first woman to attend Winston-Salem State University under the GI Bill. Johnson earned her teaching degree from the university in 1949. After finishing school, she quickly landed a job in education, but unfortunately due to work restrictions she was unable to attend her graduation. “I couldn’t get anyone to substitute for me back then, so I had to miss my graduation. It was terrible,” she told the news outlet.
While celebrating her birthday with loved ones at a retirement community in Hickory last Thursday, she was surprised with a WSSU graduation cap and gown along with an invitation to walk across the stage during their May 10 commencement ceremony. Johnson says she’s humbled by the honor and her family members are nothing short of proud. “That’s going to be probably the highest honor of her life,” said her son David Johnson. “The fact that she gets to graduate now, after all this time, is going to melt her heart. She deserves it.” WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson says the university is inspired by her journey and is excited to give her this special opportunity 70 years later.
Congresswoman Virginia Foxx recently paid homage to Johnson for her service, impact, and influence in North Carolina on the U.S. House Floor.