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Kathleen Clement Johnson

Kathleen Clement Johnson doesn’t know how she came to integrate Durham Academy in 1964. She never asked her parents, civic and professional leaders William A. Clement and Josephine Dobbs Clement, about that. But she thinks she knows why.

“Both of my parents came from families that had always been involved in breaking racial barriers and breaking the color line,” Johnson said. “I had an older sister, Alexine Clement Jackson, who was part of a group of schoolchildren named in a lawsuit in Durham in 1951.” 

Photo of Kathleen Clement Johnson and family

The Clement family (father William A. Clement and mother Josephine Dobbs Clement, along with Kathleen, who had just completed her third grade year at DA, and Jodi, who was soon to enter DA kindergarten) in May 1965. 

Johnson said the aim of that lawsuit, Blue v. Durham, was not to integrate the schools. “They thought that was a bit much to push for, but they wanted equalization, to have the same amount of money spent on buildings, books and curriculum” for Black students as it was for whites. 

The legal success of Blue v. Durham served as a model for other North Carolina communities during the “separate-but-equal” era, and the case caused the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups to take the next step.

“About three or four years later, they pushed forward for more and that was Brown v. Board of Education [which eventually led to school desegregation]. My parents were among the parents of Durham that were involved in that.”

Given that type of background and her parents’ mindset, “it seems natural that they would have taken advantage of an opportunity to break the color line at Durham Academy,” Johnson continued. 

She thinks her enrollment at Durham Academy probably came about because of the friendship between her father, who was among the top executives at N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company, and Watts Hill Jr., a Durham civic and business leader whose parents founded Calvert Method School, which changed its name to Durham Academy in 1959. “I know they had a business relationship, and I suspect it came up in conversation. That was something my parents decided to do.”

So Johnson,  who was known as “Kathy” then, came to Durham Academy in 1964 as a third-grader. She left C.C. Spaulding Elementary, her all-Black neighborhood school, to become the only Black student at her new school. Her third-grade teacher, Ella Parks, “was a much older white-haired lady, just as sweet as could be,” but the person who stands out in her memory is classmate Cathy Cates. “She goes by Catherine now, and we are still friends to this day. We stay in touch.” 

A portrait of Kathleen Clement Johnson's mother, Josephine Dobbs Clement, taken in the fall of 1969 for a LOOK Magazine article.

Johnson’s sister, Jodi, joined her at Durham Academy in 1965 as a kindergarten student. The sisters, who were the youngest of the six Clement children, continued at DA until 1971. Jodi went to public school in sixth grade and then to The Madeira School, a boarding school in Virginia, for high school. Johnson finished ninth grade, which was then DA’s terminal grade, and headed to Hillside High School, from which she graduated in 1974. 

“I chose not to go to prep school, not to go away to boarding school for high school, because at that particular juncture, for social life reasons I really wanted an environment where I wasn't the ‘only’ person,” she explained. While Durham public schools were no longer segregated, Hillside was still overwhelmingly Black.

Johnson looks back on Durham Academy with “a memory of a fond time,” but it was also a very different time. She remembered that her father was the first Black member of the DA Board of Trustees, joining the board when she was in the eighth grade, and that he was close with Bob Johnston, who came to DA as head of school in 1969. She played volleyball, basketball and softball and was captain of the cheerleading squad.

“My experience at Durham Academy had been a very wonderful experience, I really don't remember any instances of overt racism,” Johnson said. “I do remember as we were traveling in junior high, we would go to South Carolina to play a day school down there. That was an overnight trip and it was very important to find a family that was willing to house me — this is 1969, 1970, 1971. I remember them, the Abrams family, a very lovely, lovely family, lovely experience.”

Johnson headed to UNC-Chapel Hill after Hillside and graduated with a degree in psychology. “When I was at college — 1974 to 1978 — feminism really was coming into vogue. Women went from going to college to seek their ‘Mrs. degree’ to seeking their B.S. degree. So it was very important that I had a career and had the credentials to support it.”

She wanted to become a clinical psychologist. Her father didn’t think that would be a lucrative career for her, but thought she’d make a great lawyer and persuaded her to go to UNC Law School. She spent a year in law school — “hated, hated, hated it, hated it,” she said — and left for a management trainee job in banking. 

“All the time, I was trying to figure out what would be my professional career because it was expected that I would have a graduate degree or professional degree. So I landed on business and secured a full scholarship fellowship to the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.” She earned an MBA in finance with a heavy concentration in organizational behavior, which helped satisfy her interest in human behavior.

Equipped with an MBA, she accepted a job as a marketing representative for IBM in Washington, D.C., and she was one of the few Black women selling for IBM in the early 1980s. She decided she wanted to move to Atlanta because “I thought Atlanta would be a lot more fun, as D.C. was heavily political. That's where my mother was from, so I had a lot of family down there — aunts, cousins, etc. Maynard Jackson, who was elected the first Black mayor of Atlanta, is my first cousin. His mother and my mother were sisters,” she said, noting that Jackson’s mother was her favorite aunt.

But Atlanta was a popular destination for IBMers, and it was very difficult to get a transfer to Atlanta. “I was recruited by Digital Equipment Corporation [now Hewlett-Packard], which was a big rival to IBM at the time, and I went to work for Digital because they moved me to Atlanta.” 

She had a successful career with Digital in Atlanta  — moving from local to regional to national assignments — but when Digital offered employees a buyout, “I raised my hand to take the buyout. That's when I launched the Clement Insurance Group with my older brother, Bill.” 

Johnson ran the business and was part of a team of insurance brokers that placed insurance for the 1996 Olympics held in Atlanta. She immersed herself in Atlanta social and civic life, serving on the boards of the Junior League, the Girl Scout council, the library system and the Atlanta Foundation; becoming president of the Atlanta chapter of The Links; participating in Leadership Atlanta; and being named Outstanding Young Atlantan.

She sold her insurance business, and soon after the Olympics, she came home to Durham to help her parents prepare for a move to Atlanta, where her mother passed away in 1998 and her father in 2001. 

She continued working in insurance and joined the Atlanta office of Marsh, describing Marsh as the largest insurance broker in the world. “All this time I had never lost my passion and my interest in human behavior, and I was doing a lot of reading on the side.”

Kathleen Clement Johnson and Mike Johnson attended a White House reception hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2013.

Around that time she met Mike Johnson, who had transferred to Atlanta as part of a promotion with UPS, and who would become her husband in 2006. Through him, she became familiar with Right Management, a company that did outplacement services and used executive coaches.

“I became absolutely intrigued because this was an opportunity to marry business and psychology, and they were excited by my sales background. They were growing by leaps and bounds, and they needed people to sell the services. So I left Marsh, left the insurance field and went to Right Management [now owned by Manpower].” That led to her training as an executive coach and being credentialed by the International Coach Federation. 

“I became an executive coach in 2006, and I loved it, loved it, loved it,” she said. “It brought to play all of my experiences from business because you're coaching leaders in the corporate space. It brought together my love for psychology, and it also brought the experiences of leadership that I had gained from watching my parents and watching my parents' friends being leaders on a local, state and national level. I started my own firm — again, the entrepreneurial bent — Confluent Systems.” 

Kathleen and Mike Johnson moved to Florida in 2016 when he retired from UPS as vice president for human resources for the U.S. operation. They started a new company, Johnson Talent Development, as a mechanism for her coaching and his consulting. She retired in 2020, and while they are no longer actively involved with Johnson Talent Development, they like to keep active with projects. 

It was one of those projects that brought Kathleen Clement Johnson back to Durham this summer and to the Academy Road campus of Durham Academy. 

Johnson is helping her niece, Dr. Leslie Clement Gutierrez of Charlotte, who has become very interested in family history and the story of her grandfather and her grandmother — Josephine Dobbs Clement, who grew up in Atlanta. Gutierrez, a professor at Johnson C. Smith University, is archiving and pulling together family photos, possibly for a book with Josephine Clement as the focus, comparing Atlanta and Durham and the significance of both communities in the Black community during Jim Crow. Gutierrez remembered coming to Durham as a child but not as an adult with an interest in history, and Johnson’s husband, Mike, had never been to Durham because her parents had passed before she met him.

A trip was planned for July, with the Johnsons arriving a day early and visiting Chapel Hill and Durham Academy before embarking on family history with her niece.

What happened next is what Johnson described as “that most wonderful experience with Danny [Gooch],” who encountered the Johnsons when they found themselves going the wrong way on the one-way drive through the front of the Academy Road campus. Gooch, a DA security officer, asked if they were lost, and Johnson launched into what her husband called her spiel, saying who she was, that she integrated Durham Academy and “even played in that gym, the gym that’s still standing there.” 

When Johnson stopped the spiel long enough to take a breath, Gooch welcomed them warmly and asked if they would like to see the campus. “My husband was floored by his hospitality and just how gracious he was. He took us in the gym. He threw on the lights. He took us around the campus and said, ‘I want you to see all the new buildings that are under construction.’”

Gooch walked them past some of the old buildings where Johnson had attended classes when she was at DA, and that’s when Johnson spotted it. 

“One of the classrooms had a sticker in the window, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and I'm like, what? And then next to it was a sign that said W.G. Pearson Center. Danny said we did a summer enrichment program [Student U], and I said, really? I know who W.G. Pearson was. His son lived around the corner from us [in Durham]. And Danny was like, really?”

Next Gooch spotted Middle School Director Jon Meredith and introduced them. When the Johnsons had finished talking with Meredith, Gooch pulled up in a golf cart and gave them a ride so they wouldn’t have to walk back to their car at the front of campus on a sweltering July day. 

“He was just the most wonderful ambassador, and it just made me feel so good about the trip.” 

It was a trip that began back in 1964, when Kathleen Clement Johnson integrated Durham Academy.