WSSU honors 1949 grad during commencement ceremony

Graduates from Winston-Salem State University and 1949 graduate Elizabeth Barker Johnson during the commencement ceremony last week.

WSSU honors 1949 grad during commencement ceremony
May 16
00:50 2019

1,100 graduates ‘depart to serve’

Nearly 1,100 Rams transitioned to alumni status last week when Winston-Salem State University held its spring commencement ceremony on Friday, May 10, at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

While dozens of graduates danced their way across the stage to receive their degrees, the best graduation stroll came from 99-year-old Elizabeth Barker Johnson. A native of Elkin, Johnson is a member of the 6888th regiment, the only all-female, African American Women’s Army Corps battalion to serve overseas during World War II. After serving her country in the U.S. Army, Johnson went on to become the first female to enroll at Winston-Salem Teachers College on the GI Bill, a benefit designed to help service members and veterans cover the cost of getting an education or job training.

Records show Johnson earned her degree in education in 1949, but at the time she was working in Virginia and was unable to attend the graduation ceremony. At her 99th birthday party earlier this month, Johnson was surprised with the news that she would finally have the opportunity to walk across the stage at graduation.

Before presenting Johnson with her degree on Friday morning, Chancellor Elwood Robinson said he was honored to be able to formally present Johnson with her degree. He said, “Today Winston-Salem State University is delighted to recognize an outstanding member of WSSU, Alumni Mrs. Elizabeth Bernice Barker Johnson.”

As she made her way to the podium, the coliseum erupted in applause. While trying to hold back tears, Johnson reached out and embraced Chancellor Robinson with a hug. In a press release issued by WSSU, Robinson said Johnson is the embodiment of the meaning of the HBCU’s motto.

“From serving her country during World War II to impacting the lives of hundreds of students as a classroom teacher in North Carolina and Virginia, PFC Elizabeth Barker Johnson is the embodiment of Winston-Salem State’s motto, ‘Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve.’” He continued, “We are inspired by her and excited to give her the opportunity, 70 years later, to finally walk across the stage for commencement.”

Philanthropist, musician and business owner Kwanza Jones delivered the keynote address during the ceremony. She is the co-founder and CEO of the Kwanza Jones & Jose E. Feliciano SUPERCHARGED Initiative, a grant making and impact investment organization with four focus areas: education, entrepreneurship, equal opportunity, and empowerment. She told the class of 2019 that now it gets real.

“Now it gets real and no one is ever going to do it for you. You have to do it for yourself and that’s why you are sitting here today, because you did it for yourself and you got it done,” Jones said.

Jones also encouraged the graduates to take advantage of the resources and connections they made while at WSSU, to identify their strengths, and be brave enough to make a move.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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