CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA)—Teretha Johnson was an educator in Champaign when schools were beginning to integrate. The park district says a decision will be made about whether or not they should reach out to family to pursue naming the education wing at the new Martens Center after Johnson. They say a donor wanted the wing to be named after an African American educator. He heard about Johnson and thought she would be a good choice.
Teretha Johnson is known by many as a leader in education. Former Mayor Don Gerard remembers. He had her for 2nd grade. “At the time I didn’t realize it was such a big deal for a person of color to be teaching white children,” said Gerard. Johnson was an elementary school teacher in Georgia, Virginia, and worked for Champaign Schools from 1953 until 1982. She taught at Marquette, Lawhead, Booker T. Washington, and Bottenfield Elementary Schools.
“She was just a natural at bringing out the best in all of her students,” said Gerard. However, in the in the 60’s school was much different. “It was a very segregated city,” said Gerard, “All of the students of color came on the bus. They were bused in.” Johnson helped integrate Champaign Schools by becoming the first black teacher at Bottonfield. “It was certainly the first time any of us as white children saw someone who looked different, and it was on the other side of the coin for the children of color, someone who looked like them,” said Gerard.
“For Teretha to go out to Bottonfield, it was a majority white school, and so for her it was kind of like breaking a barrier,” said Johnson’s friend, Eunice Rivers. That opened doors for others. “Then once she was established and the people accepted her teaching there they decided to have more black teachers and that’s when it started to spread,” said Rivers. Students say her contributions are profound. “It turns out as we look back historically she is one of the most historical figures in the history of this city,” said Gerard.