MHC alum Gloria Johnson-Powell ’58 has died

Martin Luther King Jr. instructed Gloria Johnson-Powell ’58 to stay in school because, he said, “We're going to need you.”

By Sasha Nyary

Gloria Johnson-Powell ’58, a prominent child psychiatrist whose work helped lead to landmark national legislation in 2000 that established the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, has died. She was 81 years old.

Part of the National Institutes of Health, the center, which was a decade in the founding and has been known as an institute since 2010, studies the health of people of color and seeks to raise national awareness about the prevalence and impact of health disparities between races and eliminate them. 

Dr. Johnson-Powell briefly considered not becoming a physician, but she was instructed by Martin Luther King Jr. to stay in medical school. His insight into her strengths was well-founded and she returned his faith in her many-fold.

Gloria Johnson, as she was then known, received her B.A. in economics and sociology from Mount Holyoke College and started medical school at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Already an activist — Johnson had caused a furor as a high school student at Boston Latin when she refused to salute the American flag, a ritual she rejected as dangerously nationalistic — the young medical student became involved with the civil rights movement.

Johnson lived in Nashville at a significant time, when the struggle for black equality was moving from one fought in the courts in the 1950s to a strategy of direct action. Nashville in the early ’60s was an important battleground. She was one of a dozen, including the future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, featured in “The Children,” the late journalist David Halberstam’s 1999 book about young black activists in the city at that time.

It was during this time that Johnson was at an organizing meeting led by King. Inspired, she announced that she was thinking about leaving medical school to recruit more Freedom Riders.

She would never forget his response. He pointed his finger at her and commanded, “You will stay in school because one of these days we’re going to need you.”

She listened.

Her subsequent contributions were numerous. After completing her residency at UCLA, Dr. Johnson-Powell became a professor of child psychiatry in the university’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, where she taught for 15 years. She then joined the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where she was the institution’s first African-American female professor, and taught there for a decade. During this time she was also senior advisor on community and social policy research at the Judge Baker Center for Children in Boston.

Dr. Johnson-Powell completed her extraordinary career at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, where she was associate dean for cultural diversity and a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics.

It was in this position that the cumulation of her life’s research and experiences came together in her most significant contribution, the founding of the Center for the Study of Cultural Diversity in Healthcare, which helped led to the creation of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Dr. Johnson-Powell also worked and taught at universities in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Brazil. Her numerous awards include the Rosa Parks Award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Foundation and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in recognition for her work on child abuse and sexual assault. She was also awarded the Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller Award from the American Psychiatric Association.

Co-author or co-editor of several books, Dr. Johnson-Powell’s “Black Monday’s Children: A Study Of The Effects Of School Desegregation On The Self-Concepts Of Southern Children,” was the first textbook in child psychiatry to address this issue. Others include “The Psychosocial Development of Minority Children,” “Lasting Effects of Child Sexual Abuse” and “Transcultural Child Development: Psychological Assessment and Treatment.”

With her daughter April Powell Willingham, she co-wrote the story of her mother’s life, “The House On Elbert Street: The Biography Of A Welfare Mother.”

In 1998, Dr. Johnson-Powell established an endowed lectureship at Mount Holyoke in honor of her mother, who had dreamed of attending the College. The Mary Elizabeth Johnson Lecture Fund brings speakers to campus who are dedicated to the topic of social justice and human rights.

Dr. Johnson-Powell is survived by her three children, April Powell-Willingham, Allison Powell Schuler and Daniel Befakadu Powell, and eight grandchildren, Taharqa Willingham, Kamilah Willingham, Muj Powell, David Powell, Miazia Schuler, MJ Powell, Kasmira Schuler and Norma Lilith Schuler.

At the request of her family and in lieu of flowers, gifts in memory of Dr. Johnson-Powell may be made online at Mount Holyoke College, or mailed to Mount Holyoke College, Office of Advancement, attention: Gwyneth Merner, 50 College Street, South Hadley, MA 01075.