Johnetta Randolph Haley has never stopped teaching – not since she began her educational career as a music teacher in East St. Louis in the early 1940s.
“I hope I don’t ever do that,” said the Alton, Illinois native.
Haley believes the most profound moment in her long, impactful career came towards the end of it, when she was appointed director of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s East St. Louis Center beginning in 1982.
As director, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to ask the U.S. Department of Education to allow the university to operate a Head Start program – an unusual request at the time. She also encouraged all the students’ mothers to go back and obtain degrees, which many did with her help.
She initiated programs that empowered the community’s most vulnerable residents. Teachers worked to motivate high school students to explore math and science, and professional artists lent their talents to students of all ages. The center also reached entire families with its health, counseling and dental services.
“She was always looking out for people and always wanted people to do their best,” said Janina Turley, the former Project Success program director at the East St. Louis Center, who was elevated into her position by Haley. “Even when you didn’t have confidence, she built your confidence.”
SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook, one of Haley’s former students, said, “Her work in furthering the East St. Louis Center, and particularly arts education there, has benefitted thousands of students over the years.”
On Saturday, September 29, Haley will receive the Lifetime Achiever in Education Award from the St. Louis American Foundation at the Salute to Excellence in Education Awards Gala at the America’s Center.
Proceeds from the foundation’s four annual Salute to Excellence events benefit community grants as well as scholarships for local minority students. In 2018 alone, the St. Louis American Foundation and its educational, corporate and individual supporters will foster a record-breaking $1 million in minority scholarships and community grants.
Another hallmark that stands out in Haley’s career is becoming the first woman to chair Lincoln University’s Board of Trustees.
“A couple of the men walked out of the meeting, but I was the chair for five years,” she said.
Haley studied music education at Lincoln University and graduated in 1945. She comes from five generations of college-educated people, she said, and her grandparents and parents always stressed the importance of higher education.
Her father, John Randolph, graduated from Gammon Theological Seminary and was an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister. Haley’s mother, Willie Smith, graduated from Lincoln Institute, later to become Lincoln University, and worked as a teacher before she married.
“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 persevere to achieve what they wanted.”
Haley began teaching at East St. Louis Lincoln High School, where she graduated in 1941. She taught in East St. Louis for three years, married real-estate broker David Haley, and then in 1950 went to work at J. Milton Turner School, a neighborhood school for African-American children in the Kirkwood School District.
When the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision was handed down, Kirkwood integrated Turner School and its white counterpart, Nipher Junior High. Haley was one of four black teachers who went to teach at Nipher, and she became the vocal music director.
“There were 1,500 parents who signed a petition that said they didn’t want us,” she told SIUE students at a talk in 2017.
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, she said.
“Many of the teachers didn’t speak to me,” Haley told the SIUE students. “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.”
Haley spent more than 20 years at the district. Then she joined the SIUE faculty in 1972 as an assistant professor in the Department of Music. 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.
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.
In January, Haley received the Lifetime Achiever Award from the Arts and Education Council. One of her former students, Michael Hamilton, is now artistic director at Stages St. Louis.
“My life’s work has been in the arts,” Hamilton told the council. “I view the arts as the ultimate way to reach out into a community and the ultimate way to make contact with a human being. And Johnetta was the person who that put me on that path.”
Dwayne Buggs, dean of arts at Central VPA High School and also a former student, said, “I feel that God has gifted her with an innate radar. She can see the needs of students and goes out of her way to help them.”
Haley has continued to be active in the community, dedicated to many organizations. She’s approaching her Diamond Anniversary with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. She is a member of the Gateway Chapter of The Links, Inc. She has served on the Board of Trustees of Stillman College and served as chair of the Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in Higher Education. She held offices or served on the boards of many other civic organizations.
Haley had two children, Karen Douglas and the late Michael Haley. The apples of her eye are her grandson Jonathan Haley, his wife Jessica and her great-grandson Braylon. She had a 23-year relationship with Phillip Hampton, an accomplished painter and SIUE art professor, who died in December 2016.
“Today, I can’t believe we’re still going through some of the same things,” Haley told SIUE students in 2017. “But I’m 94 (now 95), and I’ve survived, and you can, too.”
The 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 2018 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.