EDWARDSVILLE — It is a proud, hard-working and educated pedigree that Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Professor Emeritus Johnetta Haley shared on Wednesday, Oct. 11 at the University’s Elijah P. Lovejoy Library. The 94-year-old gave highlights of her life story to a roomful of more than 150 college students, included approximately 60 SIUE Johnetta Haley Scholars.
Haley was the centerpiece in the presentation of “Sitting at the Feet of an Elder,” which was part of SIUE’s first Black Playwright Festival that ran through Sunday, Oct. 15.
“If you’re going to do something, be the best you can be,” Haley said. “And you have to be educated, because education is the key. If you’re not educated, you won’t fit into total society.”
Haley, who comes from five generations of college-educated people, said her grandparents and parents always stressed the importance of higher education to her and her siblings. She grew up learning how not to shy away from hard work or hard times, attributes JHaley2that would garner her much success and some distinctions of being the “first.”
Her father, John Randolph graduated from Gammon Theological Seminary. Haley’s mother, Willie Smith, graduated from Lincoln Institute, later to become Lincoln University.
“I went to Lincoln University because my mother went there,” she said. “I grew up hearing all the fun times they had, and how they had to preserve to achieve what they wanted.”
She spoke about the challenges of going to college and trying to find work to help pay for her schooling.
“As a college student it was hard to find a job, because I was black,” Haley said. “I took a written test to be a dish washer at McCrory’s Ten Cent Store in downtown St. Louis.
“I washed the dishes, but I couldn’t eat at the counter. I ate in the basement. One day my manager, who hadn’t finished high school, said because of my hard work, never complaining and always being on time, they promoted me to a waitress. I was the first black waitress at McCrory’s.”
Haley graduated from Lincoln in 1945 and later went on to become the first woman chair of the school’s Board of Trustees. “A couple of the men walked out of the meeting, but I was the chair for five years,” she said.
In September 1955, Haley was one of four teachers who integrated Kirkwood Public Schools. She was the vocal music director and chairperson of the Nipher Junior High School.
“There were 1,500 parents who signed a petition that said they didn’t want us,” she said.
During the first year of school, Haley took her classroom choir to a competition in Mehlville. “One of the judges at the competition tremendously praised my choir. The next year, everybody wanted their child to be in my class.”
But there were still hardships, the retired music teacher explained: “Many of the teachers didn’t speak to me. When I walked into the teacher’s lounge, they would stop talking, because they were talking about me. Don’t believe other people’s bad opinion about you. My mom always taught us to walk tall and hold our head high. And that’s what I’ve done.”
“Today, I can’t believe we’re still going through some of the same things,” Haley continued. “But I’m 94, and I’ve survived, and you can, too.”
Haley joined the SIUE faculty in 1972 as an assistant professor in the Department of Music in the School of Fine Arts and Communications. She rose through the SIUE ranks to associate professor in 1978 and to professor in 1984. She was named professor emeritus in 1993 by the SIUE Department of Music upon her retirement. Read more about Haley’s accomplishments in SIUE News.
In 1994, SIUE’s minority scholarship program was named the Johnetta Haley Scholars Academy in honor of her many contributions to the University and to the East St. Louis community. Today, SIUE has 360 Johnetta Haley Scholars. Earleen Patterson, PhD, director of Student Opportunities for Academic Success (SOAR) coordinates the Johnetta Haley Scholarship program.
SIUE Emeritus Professor Johnetta Haley shares her life story with SIUE college students.