ADRIAN — Kleo D. Johnson, a pioneering black teacher in Adrian’s public schools who developed programs for children with special needs, died Tuesday at her home in Lenawee County’s Raisin Township. She was 85.
She suffered a stroke, her daughter Pamela Johnson said.
Mrs. Johnson taught in the Adrian schools for 17 years, retiring in 1984. She was hired to start a program for socially and emotionally disturbed children, she told The Blade in 1997.
“Mom had that opportunity to be on the ground level at developing and implementing what I would call the ‘special education program,’” her daughter said.
Mrs. Johnson told The Blade that she could be tough on her students, and that she hugged them before they left the classroom. She taught students the consequences of their actions and allowed them to develop at their own pace — and work up to their potential.
Her goal as an Adrian College graduate had been to teach in her hometown, Adrian. She was thwarted for a decade.
“[School officials] let me know in no uncertain terms that there would be no openings in Adrian for black teachers,” she told The Blade. She applied without success to every district in the county. Instead, she taught at a training school in Adrian for troubled girls, although most often home life, not the girl, was troubled. Mrs. Johnson served as a mother figure to many girls.
“Mom’s entire life has been devoted to her Christian beliefs and service,” her daughter said. “She looked at this as another thing she should be doing: making sure people were nurtured and cared for.”
When she applied again to the Adrian schools, a new superintendent said “he didn’t care if I was black or purple,” Mrs. Johnson told The Blade. She said that hers had been a satisfying job that was worth the fight.
“I'm glad the Lord made me black,” she told The Blade. “It has made me strong.”
She had a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. She’d played basketball at Adrian College and was in the athletic hall of fame. In 1993, she received the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Award. She was a former president in Michigan of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She and her late husband were Meals on Wheels volunteers.
She was born April 17, 1927, to Blanche and Donald Carter and was a graduate of Adrian High School. She was a lifelong member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was a Bible studies teacher, sang soprano in the choir, and was a leader in the congregation and at the church district level.
She and her husband, Buford, married in 1948. He died March 31, 2008.
Surviving are her daughters, Pamela Johnson, Justine Johnson-Stewart, Lynne Ann Johnson-Lopez, and Leslie Johnson-Smith; son, Carter Johnson; sister, Florence Carter; 14 grandchildren; 25 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.
Services will be at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Wagley Funeral Home, Adrian, where the family will receive friends from 4:30-8 p.m today.
The family suggests tributes to Bethel AME Church and Lenawee County Hospice.