Soul of RVA: The life and legacy of Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson, JMU’s first black graduate

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Dr. Sheary Darcus Johnson believes it is her life’s mission to give back to her community. As the co-pastor of “Victory Family Worship Center” in Richmond, she told 8News that she has found her niche in outreach.

Johnson credits her passion for service to her life’s journey, dating back to the 1960’s and 70’s, when racial segregation was alive and well.

Growing up, Johnson attended the Lucy F. Simms school in Harrisonburg — an all-Black school. She quickly realized that the phrase “separate but equal” at the time, was not all that it was played up to be.

Eager for a challenge, Johnson went to her parents and the school board to request enrollment at the all-white school at the time, Harrisonburg High School. The board approved, and she and five other African American students were enrolled in 1964.

“It was a good experience for me and I feel like it was a necessary step for me to go onto higher education,” she said.

Years later, Johnson would find herself again facing another racial feat. As an aspiring librarian, Johnson applied to Madison college, now known as James Madison University, because it had the program she needed to fulfill that dream.

What Madison college did not have, though, was any black students.

Still, Johnson applied and got accepted. She says her experience was generally positive, but there were subtle reminders of the color of her skin.

“There were people who didn’t want me sitting at the same table with them,” she recalled. “I’d sit down and they’d get up and move, but that was their privilege. They didn’t bother me.”

JMU
Darcus Johnson sits among all white peers at James Madison University. (Photo: JMU)

Johnson said she remained focused on her education, and four years later, in 1970, she walked across the stage and became Madison College’s first black graduate. She would graduate from Madison college again in four years with her master’s degree.

“My whole family came to graduation, and when they called my name, this big cheer went up and I walked across the stage with all of these cheers,” she recalled. “I was told by my parents later that this lady tried to get them to cheer for her child.”

Fast forward 50 years, and in a moment of racial reckoning, James Madison University is now honoring the woman who broke the mold on its campus.

In February, the university announced it is in the process of renaming buildings formerly named after Confederate leaders. One building, currently called Justice Studies Hall, will be named after Darcus Johnson. 

“I got a lump in my throat when I saw the sign. So, when I see the building, I’ll probably shed a few tears,” she said.

Darcus Johnson2
James Madison University will honor its first Black graduate by naming a building after her. (Photo: JMU)

Johnson, now a co-pastor at Victory Family Worship Center, says she uses her life’s path to minister to others through outreach in the Richmond area.

She is the founder of Better People Incorporated which aims to improve the quality of life of children and their families. Johnson spearheaded a community food drive that fed more than 19,000 meals to children last summer.

“I see the needs and I just have the desire,” she said. “God gave me the desire to want to help and when people want the help, I want to help them.”

Giving back and teaching are in her blood, she says. And it’s her persistence as a teenager coupled with her ministry that has her legacy and name forever etched in history.

“There is a song that my mother used to sing. If I can help somebody as I pass along…then my living will not be in vain,” she says. “That’s what I want to be known for… that I blessed others.”

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