When asked about Katie Everette Johnson’s importance to the struggle for civil rights in Pittsburgh, her neighbor Rev. Margaret Tyson summed it up best:
“Every TV show I watched (about the struggle) on WQED last week—she was in every one of them.”
KATIE E. JOHNSON
“She just celebrated her 89th birthday last week, and she’s everywhere, very active,” said Tyson. “So If I want to know what’s going on I ask Miss Katie because she’s either a part of it or knows the people who are.”
And that’s how it has always been for Johnson. In the 1940s and 1950s, Johnson worked as the office manager for the Urban League of Pittsburgh. In that role she was the principal organizer of the league’s 1954 National Conference, the first time it was held in Pittsburgh.
“I started working for them when I was 19, and Byrd’s mother—she was something. I worked with her 31 years,” she said. “I had moved away after getting married. And when I got back she asked me to help. I said I would on one condition—let me start this dinner on time.”
Johnson said people used to argue about whether the NAACP or the Urban League was the more important organization. She said they both were.
“We at the Urban League got the first Black woman hired at Bell Telephone, and the first Black Engineer hired by a major corporation—but it was only because the NAACP had scared them so badly in the first place,” she said. “We needed both.”
Freedom Unlimited founder Alma Speed Fox, who will be 89 Feb. 18, jokes that she “always knew Katie was older.” She said she remembers Johnson’s work as a staunch supporter of the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch, increasing both its membership rolls, and also the size and prestige of its annual Human Rights Dinner.
“Katie worked very closely with Wilhelmina Brown. I remember when we had the dinner at Webster Hall. It was about 500 people. Well, after Katie, we had to move to the William Penn because we had over 1,000. Later on it got too big for that and we moved to the Hilton,” said Fox. “She was there when we had 10,000 members. She was always involved with the NAACP and her church—she still is.”
Johnson’s lifelong dedication to her community and Bethel AME Church shows up again in her work with Small Seeds Development Inc., a nonprofit founded by AME Presiding Elder Rev. Dr. James McLemore, to support, strengthen, and sustain families to build strong and safe communities, where she serves as board secretary.
Johnson downplays her role in the civil rights movement, preferring to praise those who mentored her or whom she worked with. Some of those she mentions include, women like Brown, Fox, Edna McKenzie, Christine Jeffries, Catherine Irvis, Bea Mahaffey, Artegis Moncrieff and Dorkas Turner.
“I had a stroke and two aneurysms back in 2008, so I can’t remember all the things we did,” she said. “God let me stay here long enough to forget.”