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Obituary: Johnetta Randolph Haley, Music Teacher And Activist Dies at 97

Johnetta Randollph Haley
Kimberly Beck
Johnetta Randolph Haley knew she wanted to be a music educator early on. She broke racial barriers and founded Head Start in East St. Louis. She died at age 97.

Johnetta Randolph Haley, a music teacher who, over the vehement objections of white parents, helped integrate a Kirkwood middle school after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954, has died. She was 97.

“Fifteen hundred people signed a petition they didn’t want me or the other three (teachers) only because we were black,” Haley said in a 2018 awards program video. “But after one year, they wanted their kids in my class.”

In fact, she told the Webster-Kirkwood Times in 2018, she became so popular at previously all-white Nipher Junior High that the school had to add more music classes. And larger performance venues.

“When the curtain rose on the performance, Haley would unveil a miracle,” said one of her former students, Margaret Wolf Freivogel, in a 1992 St. Louis Post-Dispatch column. “I have no idea whether we sounded beautiful. But I do know that for those few minutes in the spotlight we felt that way.”

Haley, who performed thousands of musical miracles in her decades-long career, died Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021. She had most recently been a resident of Ladue.

Services are pending.

Mrs. Haley’s reign

She began playing piano when she was 5 and directed her first choir at 15. From childhood, she knew what she wanted to be.

“I wanted to be a teacher; that’s what I prayed to be–a teacher–and to be a good girl,” Haley said in the 2018 Arts and Education awards video honoring her.

“I’m still working on that last one,” she said with a laugh.

After graduating from Lincoln University in Jefferson City in 1945, she began teaching in East St. Louis at Lincoln High School, from which she’d graduated four years earlier. Several years later, she married real estate broker David Haley, whom she later divorced, and began teaching at J. Milton Turner Junior High School in Meacham Park, the predominantly black enclave that later merged with Kirkwood.

When schools were desegregated in 1955 by federal decree, Haley was one of four African American teachers to be hired at Nipher Junior High, over the concerted objections of most of the white parents.

In short order, she changed their minds. The beauty of their children’s voices and the force of her regal bearing did it.

Freivogel wrote that Haley “didn't so much teach as reign.”

Her reign at Nipher lasted nearly two decades, ending when, at age 49, she decided to pursue an advanced degree. She earned a master’s in music from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 1972 and promptly joined the SIUE music faculty. She became a full professor in 1984, while also serving as director of the SIUE-run East St. Louis Center.

''We don't think there is a center like this anywhere in the country,'' Haley proudly told the Post-Dispatch in 1987. ''From the 3-year-old to the senior citizen, we serve them all.''

The center now boasts several clinics, including an eye clinic, which Haley helped plan and fund in 1994 in her role as an administrator with the East St. Louis Community Fund.

She also founded one of the largest Head Start programs in the country in East St. Louis and persuaded the U.S. Department of Education to permit SIUE to operate it. The programs are usually administered by local health and human services agencies.

When Randy Pembrook was named SIUE’s chancellor in 2016, he was pleased to see what his former student-teaching supervisor and mentor had left behind.

“She lived the mission of empowering people and strengthening communities, and is a treasure both to SIUE and the Metro East,” Pembrook said when he presented  Haley with the university’s Distinguished Service Award in 2017.

Defining a legacy

In 1963, the Congress for Racial Equality began protests against the hiring practices of Jefferson Bank and Trust in St. Louis. Protesters ignored injunctions and were arrested. When particularly punitive fines were levied on a group of protesters, Haley, then president of a local Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority chapter, delivered the full $11,000.

In a 2017 Belleville News-Democrat profile, Haley’s daughter described her mother’s priorities.

“My mother was very invested in her career, which was educating children,” said Karen Douglas.

“She was a very caring teacher, and she was very focused on community service," she said, adding, “she cared for all children, but she was very aware of societal barriers encountered by black children.”

Haley retired in 1994, but her community work continued.

In addition to AKA, she served on numerous other local and national boards, including The Links Inc.; Lincoln University, where she served as the first female board president; Stillman College; the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges; the St. Louis Metropolitan YWCA; and the Artist Presentation Society. She served as chair of the Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in Higher Education.

Numerous honors attested to her community efforts, among them the St. Louis Women of Achievement Award, the Missouri Music Educators Service to Music Award and the key to the city presented by Gary, Indiana. SIUE’s minority scholarship program bears her name.

“She defined her accomplishments by the people she taught,” said Michael Hamilton, another of Haley’s former Nipher students and co-founder of STAGES St. Louis.

For many years, she played piano at St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, where she was the first woman elected president of the congregation.

Her less serious but much-beloved pursuits included playing cards with her Hollywood Poker Club, attending meetings of the Moneybees investment group and occasionally sharing joys, like the opportunity to speak to SIUE students, with her more than 700 Facebook friends.

Parting of the waters

Johnetta Randolph was born at home in Alton, Ill., on March 19, 1923, one of the Rev. John Randolph and Willye Randolph’s four children.

At a time when most African Americans didn’t complete high school, both of her parents were college graduates. Her father’s education came through a “privilege” of birth: He was the offspring of a black mother who worked on a Louisiana plantation and the white man who owned it.

Her mother was a teacher before she got married, and her father was an itinerant minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Even though the family moved frequently throughout Illinois, she told the News-Democrat they often took in black travelers who weren’t allowed to stay in local hotels. She never forgot the lessons of selflessness or the importance of family.

On Mother’s Day in 2017, Haley posted: “To be 94 years old is a blessing. To be a mother is a blessing. My youngest, my son, is in heaven. My eldest, my lovely daughter, is near, and a joy. My mother was a wonderful lady. I am still striving to be like her, Willye Ethel Smith Randolph.”

Haley was preceded in death by her parents and brother, Robert Randolph; her companion for 23 years, Phillip Jewel Hampton; and her son, Michael Haley, who was killed at age 33 during a robbery.

Among her survivors are her daughter, Karen Douglas of Olivette; two sisters, Mary Mills of Detroit, Mich., and Frances Weatherly of Anderson, Ind.; one grandson and one great-grandson.

“When she walked down the hall, I said, ‘Who is this!’” said a former student, Stan Ford, professor of piano at Universität Mozarteum Salzburg, Austria. “It seemed like the waters parted when she walked through.”

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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