Watching Tuesday's Norman City Council meeting, I couldn't help but think Don Johnson would be embarrassed at all the excitement. He used to say it was "no big deal" what he and his sister Etta did in the fall of 1956.

But in the scheme of things, it was a big deal. The Johnson family, African Americans, lived east of Norman and the children's mother wanted them to attend Norman High School. They had been attending the rural Stella School.

One went on to Douglas High School and one went to Shawnee but Mom wanted them together at Norman. Etta went first, then Don. He graduated with the NHS Class of 1959, Etta in 1958.

They got lots of looks. Don played sports so he found a group to fit in with. He made lifelong friends; many became his customers at Bob's Seat Cover Shop where he worked. He later owned the place but never got around to changing the name.

"We really did not have a really hard time. Yes, it was an adjustment. It got easier. Don had lots of friends," Etta recalled when interviewed upon Don's death in March of 2009. "He was very intelligent. Always on the honor roll. He was very well liked."

Johnson was offered a football scholarship but suffered a broken leg and couldn't accept it. He attended Central State College and then took a job with Bob Sawyer at Bob's Seat Cover Shop that had been in Norman since 1946.

At the time of Don's death, Etta recalled proudly that she was the first female and he was the first male to integrate the schools. "No one likes change but once you accept it, it gets easier. And really, compared to other places, we didn't have it so hard."

In an interview when he retired, Johnson told me race wasn't really an issue for him. He recalled the early days of not being able to eat in restaurants or shop in certain Norman stores. "Sure. There were certain places I couldn't go but I didn't blame the businesses. That was just how things were then."

State Rep. Wallace Collins, who presented a proclamation honoring the Johnsons at the meeting, was a classmate and customer. Don was softspoken, loved his family, his customers and his horses.

Collins said he was proud of the Johnsons, the students and the Norman community for their acceptance of the two at a time when other cities had demonstrations and violent acts. Norman was a "sundown" town, meaning African Americans were not supposed to be in town after dark. They could work here but couldn't be around at night, Collins said.

Etta graduated and had a long career with Lucent Technologies in Oklahoma City. Don died in 2009, a couple of years after closing the shop on North Flood Avenue.

He was likely Norman's first minority businessman. When he retired, he told me he planned to spend more time with his horses. A gentle sport for a gentleman.

Andy Rieger 366-3543 editor@normantranscript.com

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