It’s been nearly 70 years since Elizabeth Barker Johnson graduated from what is now Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Last Friday, she was met with cheers and thunderous applause from fellow WSSU Rams as she walked across the stage to formally receive her diploma.
“It’s special, it’s extra special,” Johnson told WXII 12 after the after the May 10 commencement ceremony. “One time I said I’m not even human. This is not me receiving this — at this age? But I mean, I feel good about it. Really, really good.”
Johnson, a 99-year-old U.S. Army vet, was among the 1,100 graduates who walked the stage at the historically Black college, although the moment was almost 70 years in the making. She made her way across the stage sporting a red cap and gown and white sash as fellow grads cheered her on.
In the end, she received an honorary degree in special education.
“It was a very moving moment I know none of us will forget” said Shandra Bryant, Johnson’s granddaugter, adding that moment brought her to tears.
“Every student dreams of the day they get to walk across the stage and accept their diploma,” Bryant told Yahoo Lifestyle. “Being able to see my grandmother physically accept hers 70 years later and to have the entire coliseum give her a standing ovation upon her receiving it just brought tears to my eyes.”
Johnson served as a private first class in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of the all-female, all African-American 6888th Regiment, which was deployed overseas, according to her daughter, Cynthia Scott. During the war, Johnson drove trucks and worked at makeshift military post offices sorting through backlogged mail.
Her military service took her all across the globe, from Kentucky to England, and even France.
After the war ended, Johnson enrolled at Winston-Salem Teacher’s College, now known Winston-Salem State University, becoming the first woman at the college to enroll on the GI Bill. She would earn a degree in education in August 1949 and snag her very first teaching job. YIt was that same teaching job that caused Johnson to miss her own graduation, as she was unable to find a substitute.
Instead, she received her degree in the mail.
“I was very disappointed. I was almost in tears,” she told Yahoo Lifestyle.
Still, the single mother-of-two persevered and continued teaching in Virginia, and later in North Carolina, for over 30 years. Johnson also worked summers and picked up odd jobs to support her children.
“It was very difficult” she added. “But my determination was to see this thing through.”
Johnson got quite the surprise on her 99th birthday last week when she got a call inviting her to walk at WSSU’s 2019 commencement. The golden-ager was thrilled to finally get the opportunity.
“I was excited. I can’t explain how excited I really was,” Johnson told WXII 12. “I’m just so excited about everything’s that’s happening. I can’t really believe it’s happening.”
The retired educator said she’s always had a passion for teaching.
“I just decided I wanted to do something more than I saw most of the people around me do and I wanted to do something to help other people so I felt like teaching school was my best choice,” she added.
Johnson’s daughter, Cynthia, said she knew she would grow emotional seeing her mom walk across that stage.
“Me, I know I’m going to be in tears tomorrow when she finally gets to turn her tassel,” Scott said. “She’s already done it. We know she’s already done it. But to finally say, ‘I’ve done it. This is what I should have done 70 years ago’ but she was working so that’s good, too.”
“Words really can’t explain it” she continued. “It’s just the fact that she is getting to do this after all these years.”
Watch more in the video below.