Those celebrating the life of Katherine Everette Johnson on Thursday will share stories of a tiny woman with a big heart, an unshakable trust in God and a passion for social justice.
“Scripture says there were giants walking the earth in those days. If you look at Katy’s accomplishments, she was a giant,” the Rev. Steven A. Jackson of Bethel AME Church in the Hill District said.
Rev. Jackson said he struggled to write the eulogy only because he did not know where to begin: Mrs. Johnson meant so much to so many.
Mrs. Johnson, 94, died Wednesday of congestive heart failure. In her lifetime, she led Urban League sit-ins at a Downtown restaurant when African-Americans weren’t welcome, advocated the civil rights for women and minorities, and worked with the NAACP to help integrate corporations here.
But those who knew her best also will remember her as that friend, the one who always remembered birthdays, listened to problems, helped patch up the physical and emotional hurts.
“She was a tough little cookie,” said Janet Moyo, who grew up in the family of Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Hill District. “She knew my grandparents … she knew my parents. She was the best, sweetest person I ever met.”
Mrs. Johnson was born in Bainbridge, Ga., one of eight children. The family moved to Western Pennsylvania when she was 13. She was a graduate of Schenley High School and took business and management classes at Duff’s Iron City College and the University of Pittsburgh. A brief marriage to Samuel James Johnson produced a son, Everette Johnson, of Washington, D.C.
“She never stopped moving,” Everette Johnson said, recalling a childhood of his mother on the go, constantly “attending a lot of meetings.”
Although he left the Pittsburgh area in 1975, Mr. Johnson said, he felt comforted, knowing his mother had such a strong network of friends and virtual family through the church and her other, many organizations.
Published accounts of Mrs. Johnson’s activities are many. Here is a sample: While employed as manager of the office of equal opportunity for a precursor of Port Authority of Allegheny County, she created a program called “Classroom on Wheels,” with bus drivers visiting schools to foster better relationships between driver and young riders.
She was a guest at President Lyndon Johnson’s White House three times, to discuss race relations. She also was a founding member of the Black Women’s Political Crusade and the Program for Female Offenders. In addition, Mrs. Johnson sat on numerous boards, including the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s advisory committee.
“She was never a racist, never,” Mrs. Moyo said. “She just wanted opportunities for everybody. Elsie Hillman would open her home up for Katy to have a meeting at her house.”
In later years, Mrs. Johnson and her older sister, Thelma Witherspoon, lived in adjoining houses on Shawnee Street in the Hill District. In early 2014, however, she returned home from a shopping trip to find both houses engulfed in flames.
Mrs. Witherspoon, who also was active in church and community matters, died. On the scene, a news reporter described Mrs. Johnson as “homeless,” which rankled Mrs. Moyo.
“I said ‘Katy’s not homeless; she’s coming home with me.’ ”
Mrs. Johnson lived with the Moyo family in Gibsonia for more than two months. Mounting heath problems precipitated her move into the Juniper Village assisted living facility in Forest Hills. Mrs. Moyo and another of Mrs. Johnson’s close friends, William Taylor, were frequent visitors.
They held a birthday party for more than 60 guests at Juniper Village last month, with Mr. Taylor on piano and Mrs. Johnson decked out in a crown. “We said, ‘This is the queen!,’ and she was loving it,” Mrs. Moyo recalled.
Rev. Jackson said he will miss seeing Mrs. Johnson in her usual place at church: midway to the back, center of the section, “right where she could watch me,” he added, laughing.
As for the rest of the “homegoing” funeral, well, he’s prepared for that.
“Over the years, when we had funerals, she would sit down afterwards and tell me what she liked and didn’t like. So, I know,” he said.
In addition to her son, Mrs. Johnson is survived by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Johnson.
A two-hour visitation at Bethel AME Church, 2240 Webster Ave., Hill District, begins at 10 a.m. Thursday, with the service to follow. Interment will be at Allegheny Cemetery.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or @MariaSciulloPG.