When World War II veteran Elizabeth Barker Johnson turned 99 last month, she was stunned when sixty of her closest loved ones threw her a surprise party. After they celebrated with cake, Elizabeth’s friends and family had another surprise in store for her that she never saw coming!
Elizabeth could not believe it when she was presented with a ruby-red cap and gown and an invitation to walk at Winston-Salem State University’s graduation, seventy years after she earned a teaching degree from the school.
“I couldn’t get anyone to substitute for me back then, so I had to miss my graduation. It was terrible,” said Johnson, who spent decades working as a teacher in Virginia. “I just can’t believe this is happening. I really think I’m dreaming.”
Elizabeth’s son David Johnson added that getting to walk at her college graduation is a dream come true for his mom.
“That’s going to be probably the highest honor of her life,” David said. “The fact that she gets to graduate now, after all this time, is going to melt her heart. She deserves it.”
Elizabeth attended WWSU on the GI Bill after serving in World War II as part of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. This all-black female battalion made up of 855 women was the only one of it’s kind stationed overseas during the war.
Elizabeth joined the military on a whim after she became inspired by a “I Want You for the U.S. Army” poster she found lying on the ground outside her home. After spending a year being stationed in Kentucky, she was sent to England, where she was tasked with handling the backlog of mail.
“I like to tell people ‘She probably had a hand in getting mail from your grandmother to your grandfather,’” said her granddaughter Shandra Bryant. “It was a really important job because it made sure people received mail from their loved ones back home and it kept them positive.”
Elizabeth had some close calls during the war, particularly when she narrowly avoided a roadside mine in France while driving a truck. The land mine even killed the three women driving in the vehicle in front of her.
“She was lucky and if she hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be here right now,” David said. “She’s faced war, she’s faced racism along the way as the only black school teacher in her area for a long time. She’s such a remarkable woman.”
Elizabeth is one of only five women who were in her battalion that are alive today, and she was recently honored for her service at the U.S. House by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx. After the war, she spent 40 years working as a teacher, shaping the minds of the next generation.
“From serving her country during World War II to impacting the lives of hundreds of students as a classroom teacher in North Carolina and Virginia, Elizabeth Barker Johnson is the embodiment of Winston-Salem State’s motto, ‘Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve,’” said WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson. “We are inspired by her and excited to give her the opportunity, 70 years later, to finally walk across the stage at commencement.”
In the end, Elizabeth said that this birthday is one that she will always remember.
“I’m just in sheer shock. How in the world did my daughter and granddaughters have time to pull this off?” she said. “This is the most wonderful birthday.”
Find out more about this amazing woman in the video below.