Charleston woman honored by former Tennessee college for integrating the school

DeLaris Johnson Risher was one of two black women to integrate Scarritt College in Nashville
Published: Apr. 1, 2022 at 1:12 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 1, 2022 at 9:30 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Seventy years after a Lowcountry woman integrated a college in Tennessee, she is being honored by the former school. In the 1950s, DeLaris Johnson and another woman, were the first black students to attend Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville.

Many people know 91-year-old DeLaris Johnson Risher as a beloved high school teacher, and the widow of long-time Burke High School coach Modie Risher, Sr.

But before coming to Charleston, this powerful, petite young woman was making legendary moves of her own.

“I went to Scarritt in 1952. I got my master’s degree in 1954,” Johnson Risher said.

DeLaris Johnson of Orangeburg, and Lelia Robinson, another black woman from Texas, made history. They became students at then-Scarritt College, a Methodist school in Nashville. Johnson said that made them the first black students to integrate college in the state of Tennessee.

“I knew my place when I had to find it, and when I didn’t have to, I lived a happy life,” Johnson Risher said.

Segregation was the law of the land in the 50s, but the Methodist church was looking to challenge the racist rule. The Methodist church offered Johnson and Robinson full scholarships to integrate Scarritt.

“They accepted me, maybe some did not, but they showed no difference. We ate together, I was on student council.”

The former college is now the Scarritt Bennett Center, a religious retreat located in Nashville’s Midtown Music Row. And beginning in April, the center will name a house in the women’s honor.

The house at Scarritt that will be named for the two ladies is a very special place. It’s a house where dignitaries stay when they visit the campus.

Johnson Risher is humbled to be honored by the former college.

“I’m happy, it’s like at dream. I ask my children, wake me up, is this for real.”

The Johnson Robinson House will be dedicated tomorrow at noon in Nashville. DeLaris Johnson Risher will lead the ribbon cutting ceremony. Lelia Robinson Dabbs is no longer alive, but family members are scheduled to attend.

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