Obituary: Carroll Frye Johnson / School superintendent led integration efforts

Jan. 16, 1913 - Oct. 1, 2012

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Carroll Frye Johnson, a Southern-born educator who was one of the first superintendents to voluntarily use busing to integrate an urban school district, doing so in White Plains, N.Y., in the 1960s, died Oct. 1 in Sarasota, Fla. He was 99.

He had been weakened by a long battle with blood infections, his son, Walter, said in confirming the death.

Mr. Johnson's commitment to equal educational opportunities for minorities took root in the Jim Crow South of 1941, his son said. At the time, Mr. Johnson had just received a master's degree in education from the University of Georgia when he watched as Gov. Eugene Talmadge stacked its board of regents with allies to force the ouster of Walter Cocking, the dean of the education school.

The governor said Cocking needed to be removed because he planned to create an integrated demonstration school.

The firing drew national attention, and it was not far from his mind, his son said, when he went to Westchester County in 1954 to run the White Plains schools. The Supreme Court had just issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legal segregation in the public schools.

The White Plains system's student body was about 20 percent black then, with black students largely concentrated in a few neighborhood schools because of housing patterns. Mr. Johnson saw this as de facto school segregation, and he tried to redress it through a number of remedies, including building schools with special amenities to attract both white and black children.

By 1964, however, he had decided that the effort was too piecemeal and that black and white students remained largely isolated from one another. He put together what he called the White Plains Racial Balance Plan, which essentially called for busing hundreds of children so that no school had less than 10 percent minority enrollment or more than 30 percent. He also closed one school that had been overwhelmingly black.

To ease the way in putting the plan into effect, he built alliances with PTA leaders and the editor of the local newspaper.

"He was a Southerner and kept his drawl, and I don't think people saw him coming," his son said.

The busing plan fell into place with remarkably little resistance. Four years later, the schools could report a rise in test scores for black students, no decline in white scores and no significant white exodus out of the school system.

Mr. Johnson said the key to the program's success was that the busing went essentially one way: black children being transferred to white schools.

"Our residents wish, for the most part, to provide equal opportunity for all children -- even at some inconvenience to themselves," Mr. Johnson wrote in 1968 in evaluating the program. "But I do not believe that the majority of white parents would willingly have sent their own youngsters into center city schools."

Mr. Johnson left White Plains in 1969 for Columbia University to become a professor of education administration and director of the Institute of Field Studies at Teachers College. In announcing his arrival, TC Week, a Teachers College publication, wrote that Mr. Johnson's racial desegregation plan "became a model for other school systems in their desegregation efforts."

In 1988, the White Plains system instituted a new way to bring racial balance to its student population, letting parents select among the schools in the district, with busing provided to students who live at a distance from the ones they choose.

While working for Columbia, Mr. Johnson was a consultant on roughly 150 searches for superintendents around the country, allowing him to further his commitment to moving more women and minorities into positions of power.

"He was a champion for school integration, raising academic standards," said Charles Fowler, who is executive secretary of Suburban School Superintendents, a national association. And, he added, "for significantly broadening the base of students studying to lead America's schools."

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