Bertha Mae Johnson Smith

February 12, 1920 — April 18, 2014

Bertha Mae Johnson Smith passed away peacefully at the golden age of 94 on Good Friday, April 18, 2014. Bertha was the first African American school teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District. She was a dedicated educator and was active in her community until her health failed her.

Sister Bertha Smith was born on February 12, 1920, in Des Moines, Iowa. When she was five years old, her mother died and she and her siblings were left in the temporary care of a White family before moving to North Minneapolis with her grandmother and father. With both adults working to support the family during the Great Depression, Sister Bertha was left to raise her younger siblings and take on many household duties.

She was a shy child and avid reader who excelled in school. In her limited spare time, she participated in as many activities at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House as she could. These activities included volunteering at the nursery school. Sister Bertha enjoyed working and teaching young children and felt very comfortable with them. This love of working with children led her to pursue a career in education in later life.

In 1943, Sister Bertha completed a two-year training course, which qualified her to teach nursery school. She was aided in her quest for education by financial assistance from her church. She also worked several part-time jobs to help pay her tuition and other expenses.

While teaching nursery school at Phyllis Wheatley, Sister Bertha continued her education by taking classes at the University of Minnesota that would qualify her to teach in the school system. In 1957 she received her master’s degree in education and received her teaching certification, becoming the first African-American teacher in the Minneapolis Public School System.

Possessed of a lovely singing voice, music has always been a passion of Sister Bertha’s. In addition to singing in the choirs at church at Phyllis Wheatley, she has been a musical director for several churches and musical productions.

Sister Bertha has also traveled extensively. She has visited Egypt, the Gaza Strip, England, Italy and Russia. She shares fond memories of a trip to South Africa, where she visited Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s church just before he resigned.

Sister Bertha accepted Christ as her personal Savior at the age of 12. She was baptized at Zion Baptist Church and was a faithful member there until joining Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. She firmly believes in the power of education and perseverance to enable African Americans to pursue a better life. Her advice to the youth of the church is to “get your education, respect your elders, be accountable for your own actions and the consequences of those actions.”

Bertha is survived by her brother Romaine Johnson Sr. (Annie) of Texas, Charles P. who Bertha claimed as her son, special god-daughter Renee Ochs (Greg) and a host of nieces, nephews, god-children, and friends.

Services will be held at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 3355 North 4th Street, Minneapolis, MN 55412 on Friday, May 2. Visitation will be at 11:30 am followed by the funeral service at noon. Interment is at Crystal Lake Cemetery.

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