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She ‘dared to stand up for women of color’ (UM News)

April 25, 2022

DeLaris Johnson Risher doesn’t look, act or talk like a trailblazing, fearless woman — but she is.

In 1952, she and Leila Robinson Dabbs, both Black women, quietly integrated Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville, Tennessee, two years before segregation in education was ruled unconstitutional. Dabbs died in 2002; Risher is 92.

I have learned to balance vulnerability, surrender and a complete dependence and reliance on God. During all my pastoral appointments, I realized the necessity of tending to one’s own soul. Placing the needs of others above myself has often had the unintended consequence of diminishing my capacity to prioritize my own emotional needs.

The official naming of the Johnson Robinson House on the now Scarritt Bennett Center campus in Nashville honored both women April 2 and kicked off a yearlong campaign called “It’s Always a Time for Radical Change” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the college.

Risher led the ribbon-cutting along with Dabbs’ relatives.

At the time the women entered the college, segregation was being heavily enforced to the extent that not just imprisonment, but the lynching of African Americans had occurred in Tennessee only a decade before, according to research done by the Scarritt Bennett Center. 

The Ku Klux Klan had a public office just a few streets away from Scarritt in what is now Nashville’s famed Music Row.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity to research the storied history of the college and continue to discover all its golden treasures. These two women, who dared to stand up for women of color 70 years ago, richly blessed the history of this institution,” said the Rev. Sondrea Tolbert, executive director of Scarritt Bennett Center.

“DeLaris is strong and confident, yet gentle in spirit, with a delightful sense of humor,” said Celinda J. Hughes, co-chair of the reception sponsored by the Nashville Metropolitan Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. “Sitting and talking with her was like being at her kitchen table with a gracious lady and lifelong friend.”

During the reception, Risher talked about how she came to Nashville and shared story after story about her long career, which includes being the first Black Methodist deaconess. 

“My minister, the Rev. Isaiah DeQuincey Newman, recommended me when the United Methodists decided they would integrate Scarritt,” she said. Newman was a civil rights activist, United Methodist pastor and later a state senator of South Carolina.

She became a licensed Methodist deaconess in 1955 and her first assignment was to the Navajo New Mexico Conference in Farmington, New Mexico, as a teacher for Native American children. 

She spoke lovingly of that appointment.

Her first class was a group of Navajo children who did not speak English. “They came in all bashful, looking around, looking at me.” Navajo high school students were assigned to serve as her interpreters.

“When I got my high school students, we had fun,” she said. She wrote a story for the 1962 World Outlook, “Along the Navajo Trail,” about her work.

When her parent’s health started failing she got a job at Claflin University, a historically Black United Methodist college in her hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina. She met her husband, Modie L. Risher Sr., there and they married in 1959. She retired after 35 years of teaching.

Risher said her two years at Scarritt were “wonderful.” She said she was not afraid to be one of the first to integrate the school because she had been in so many integrated groups at home.

In her book “Yes, Lord, I’ll Do It!” Alice Cobb, a former Scarritt teacher and writer, wrote about those days when Johnson and Robinson came to the campus.

“Looking back, over a quarter of a century, all this does not seem very daring or innovative. In 1952, it was. … The really hard times for integration were to come a few years later, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.”

Risher smiles and brushes aside any comments about her bravery.

“I love this college and I appreciate all the teachers, professors, president, students,” she said. “So many just opened their arms to me. I enjoyed every day on this campus.”