Marjorie Witt Johnson, Pioneering Dance Educator, 19102007


Marjorie Witt Johnson was a social service group worker, educator and arts advocate who used modern dance and African-American culture as tools to inspire black youth. In 1999, she received a Governor’s Award for Arts in Ohio for her pioneering development of dynamic dance-education techniques. Her 50-plus years of leadership in the field of arts education were also recognized by Cleveland State University, the Cleveland Music School Settlement, the National Association of Social Workers and the National Black Storytellers Association, which gave her its prestigious Sankofa Award in 1997.

Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the daughter of a Buffalo Soldier, Johnson applied to Oberlin College at the suggestion of a high school teacher; there she pursued a degree in sociology. She subsequently earned a master’s degree in social work from Western Reserve University. At Oberlin she gained a stronger sense of herself through the mastery of modern dance.

She drew upon both disciplines when she came to Cleveland in 1935 to work in the settlement house now known as Karamu House. Entrusted with a group of energetic but unfocused teenage girls from the neighborhood, she transformed them into the Karamu Dancers. The troupe traveled to the New York World’s Fair in 1940, where they performed Johnson’s Sermon, a dance that drew on spirituals and black poetry as a way to instill an appreciation of African-American culture in her young dancers. The troupe’s New York performances were seen and praised by dance greats Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham.

Thereafter Johnson applied her special blend of “social group process and the creative arts,” as she called it, to learners of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. She worked at Hull House in Chicago, in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina, and as a professor in the Atlanta University School of Social Work. Returning to Cleveland in 1978, she organized an oral history and song project with seniors citizens at the Eliza Byrant Home and a “Rap” project with at-risk male teens and used song and storytelling to support the academic success of elementary students in the Cleveland public schools.

Toward the end of her life Johnson consulted at the Kenneth Clement and Mary M. Bethune schools and worked on a book titled Moving Images of Courage: A Legacy of Dance and Groups.

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