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“…this story of redemptive sacrifice occupies a permanent place in a prominent spot on a wall of her alma mater, thanks to the embrace of her classmates more than a half-century later.”


Michael Paul Williams

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Jane Cooper Johnson standing in front of the plaque, Thomas Jefferson High School. Plaque unveiled February 21, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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When she desegregated a Richmond high school in 1962, Daisy Jane Cooper was ostracized. This week, her classmates honored her

February 23, 2018

By Michael Paul Williams

Jane Cooper Johnson’s classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School decided to commemorate her with a plaque following their 50th class reunion.

As the first African-American student at Thomas Jefferson High School, Daisy Jane Cooper walked the halls uneasily, enduring regular taunts from fellow students and harassment from at least one teacher.

Today, this story of redemptive sacrifice occupies a permanent place in a prominent spot on a wall of her alma mater, thanks to the embrace of her classmates more than a half-century later.

Following a Wednesday night ceremony in the auditorium of the West End school featuring family members, elected officials and some members of the TJ Class of ’66, Daisy Jane — now Jane Cooper Johnson — unveiled a plaque in her honor from “her grateful classmates.”

It reads in part:
In choosing to walk a more difficult road through the halls of this school, enduring great personal hardships, Jane put an end to public school segregation, transformed our community, and made it possible for other African Americans to enjoy their constitutional right to equal educational opportunities.

James Plotkin, who led the drive to honor Johnson following their 50th anniversary class reunion, lauded her “extraordinary dignity” in the face of unkind treatment.

“Even today, there is no malice in her heart,” he said. “And she walked the talk virtually alone, quietly leading and showing us the way to lift our community above its prejudices.”

The plaque’s kicker suggests far more than rearview commemoration: May the ideals for which she stood and the example she set continue to guide and inspire all who walk these halls.

Plotkin and his classmates want the plaque “to be a beacon that will inspire all who walk the halls of this school and travel the roads of this community to want to walk in Jane’s footsteps — to want to stand up for what is right and to work to improve conditions and circumstances, not just for themselves, but for others.”

Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kamras echoed that in his remarks. “Our laws have changed, and yet inequity still exists. Injustice still exists, in this city and across our country. And today, now, more than ever, the fight must continue. And so I hope when the kids of TJ see that plaque, they are inspired to take the courageous step that you took in their own way,” he said.

Of course, Thomas Jefferson High and Richmond Public Schools are far different than in 1966, four years before court-ordered busing was implemented to create more substantial levels of integration. Today, TJ’s enrollment is 70 percent black, 23 percent white and 5 percent Hispanic, according to fall membership data from the Virginia Department of Education. Still, Johnson’s experience transcends demographic change.

“I hope that students will be able to acknowledge, recognize and see what she had to go through and take that as an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we have an opportunity here by someone who paved the way,’ ” said TJ’s principal, Darin Thompson.

Johnson, a real estate agent, exhibits a remarkable equanimity that belies the isolation and hostility she experienced not only at Westhampton and TJ, but also within the black community, where some folks accused her of betrayal for enrolling in white schools. She carries no apparent psychological scar tissue from her experience.

“It wasn’t always an easy journey,” she said. “But to have my classmates ... recognize me, and the camaraderie that exists now, we’re true friends.”

If her TJ experience was thorny, Wednesday’s event was nothing but roses. On hand to applaud her were City Councilman Andreas Addison and School Board member Liz Doerr, both of the 1st District, as well as Kamras and School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page. Mayor Levar Stoney sent remarks lauding Johnson as “a pivotal figure in the commonwealth’s struggle for civil rights.”

The General Assembly legislative record would agree: In 2005, Johnson and her mother were among two dozen Virginians commended as civil rights pioneers.

Elizabeth B. Cooper was the plaintiff in a 1958 lawsuit, filed by civil rights lawyer Oliver W. Hill Sr., requesting that her daughter be transferred from the all-black George Washington Carver Elementary School to the nearby all-white Westhampton School, which ran from first through eighth grade. The ultimate federal court victory resulted in her daughter enrolling in the eighth grade at Westhampton in September 1961. The following year, she moved on to Thomas Jefferson.

Cooper, 90, sat in the front row of the auditorium as her daughter thanked her for her example.

“People often tell me that I was very brave. Well, that may be the case,” Johnson said. “But the foremost example of resilience can be credited to my mother. Yes, my mother was resolute in wanting the best for me, despite any obstacles before her. However, because of her courage, and my being a product of my environment, I, too, was able to withstand the challenges ahead.”

Or as Plotkin said: “No 12- or 13-year-old child signs up to be the first and only African-American to integrate not one, but two public schools, without a strong role model who raised that child with unshakable values and the courage to stand up for those values, not only for herself, but for others.”

During her remarks Wednesday night, Johnson chose not to dwell on her past hardships and even credited some classmates with playing a positive role, however unwittingly, by being protective or at times befriending her, “placing your relationship with your peers at risk.” 


But mostly, her remarks were a homily on forgiveness and the enduring power of love. “Genuine love is when we love those who love us, but it goes even further. Genuine love is also when we love those we feel may have wronged us,” she said. “We also want to show respect, even to people who we feel may not deserve it, not as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of our own character.”

The classmates on hand appeared to be moved. You got the sense that these members of the Class of ‘66 wished they could start high school all over again on a more enlightened footing.

The plaque unveiling bathed the evening in a cathartic light. You can’t undo four years of racial injustice, much less 400. But it’s never too late to learn from the past, seek redemption or appreciate sacrifice.

Jane Cooper Johnson is a distinguished Civil Rights pioneer who persevered, an unselfish hero who made a difference, and one who is worthy of our respect, admiration, and friendship, the plaque reads.

Plotkin offered a personal addendum. “As one of your classmates who might not have done enough to reach out to you during those difficult years in the 1960s — and there were several who did, but I suspect many more who did not — I want you to know that we, your classmates, are privileged to be with you and to honor you now. And we are the ones who must demonstrate to you that we are worthy of your respect, admiration and friendship,” he said. “We hope we are a better part of your story today than we might have been in the 1960s.”

Michael Paul Williams
804) 649-6815


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