Pat Johnson

Community Activist, Organizer and 2024 National Heritage Fellow
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Lauren Adams Willette

Music Credits: “NY,” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed.

Today a conversation with 2024 National Heritage Fellow—activist and organizer Pat Johnson who was the founder and remains the force behind Eddie Mae Herron Center in Pocahantas Arkansas. First, some back story: In the year  2000, after she retired and raised her family, Pat Johnson recognized her community needed a place to come together and to gather, preserve and celebrate the history and cultural life of African Americans living in Randolph County.  So she went to work, brought community groups and institutions together to support the effort, and the Eddie Mae Herron Center was created. There, Pat Johnson plans programs and events that foster public engagement and an appreciation of local African American history and culture that was fast disappearing. Many people didn’t realize that The Eddie Mae Herron Center itself was once a segregated one-room school house that had formerly been an AME  church. Pat Johnson changed that: she made it into a dynamic space for the community where exhibits tell the story of Randolph County through pictures, displays, books, and spoken memories of the people who grew up there, like Pat herself.

 Born in Pocahantas in 1948, Pat attended that one room segregated school as a little girl where she was taught by Miss Eddie Mae Herron…. 

Pat Johnson: That is where I started to school. I started first grade. A one-room school, we had one teacher. Miss Eddie Mae was her name. She taught eight grades, first grade through the eighth grade. After you would finish the eighth grade, we still were not lawfully able to go to the public school. So the school furnished a bus to transport the children, nine through twelve, to Newport, Arkansas, to high school. That's where I attended high school. 

Jo Reed: Tell me about Miss Eddie Mae? 

Pat Johnson: Oh, Miss Eddie Mae was, to us-- we were elementary children, and to us, she was our hero. She was our mentor. She was a lady that we knew loved us. She was a disciplinary. She did not have children, so we all felt like we were her children. She was just a special lady that came to Pocahontas from around the Little Rock area, and she came when not only we needed her, but our parents needed her as well. 

Jo Reed: It is so hard to imagine somebody teaching  grades one through eight simultaneously in the same classroom. 

Pat Johnson: Yes, but she had groups. She had the little kids, she would call us the little kids, and then there were the big kids. So the small children, she would have us in a group. We would have little chairs, and I remember so well, we would sit in a circle, and the older children would help the smaller children with their work. Miss Eddie Mae would give the assignment, and she would help a group, and then the other kids would help the other kids to do their assignments. So it was a wonderful thing, and we all were there together. She just loved us all, and she was very supportive to us, and to our parents, and I cannot say enough about her. 

Jo Reed: Well, didn't she also teach adults in the evening? 

Pat Johnson: Yes, she did. She also taught our parents. Most of our parents were uneducated. My parents struggled. My mother could not read. But my father could read, but he had trouble with math. So, Miss Eddie Mae taught our parents at night. She taught them the parts where they were weak in. She taught them those subjects, and not only my parents, but there were other parents. So she taught night classes before night classes was even open. That's how good she was for us. 

Jo Reed: Now, you went to school in Pocahontas with Miss Eddie Mae until eighth grade, correct? 

Pat Johnson: That's right. 

Jo Reed: Was there a graduation? What happened when you move...? 

Pat Johnson: Yes, that was another thing. Miss Eddie Mae made sure that we experienced everything that they experienced in the public school. We had a graduation. We had practice. She would tell us what we had to wear. We had cap and gowns, just like you would if you were graduating from the public school. We had basically everything that the other school had. Maybe there would just be four or five in a graduating class, but she made sure we had like a banquet, an eighth grade banquet where our parents would come, and we have pictures of that, where we were at an eighth grade banquet,and she just made sure that we experienced everything that we could experience that was going on in the public schools. 

Jo Reed: So she was determined, even though you were growing up in this time of segregation, that you were not going to feel less than?

Pat Johnson: That's exactly right, and she would teach us that as well. At that time, it was really important to hear those words, “You are just as good,” or “You can do the same things.” But we were still separated. It was a struggle, a hard time, and even when we graduated from the eighth grade, getting up and going to so many miles to high school, that also was hard and a struggle. because we were going to another segregated school, but we were getting to meet other kids. We were getting to go to a school where we could date. We could go to the prom and have a date. Here, we couldn't have done that in Randolph County because there were no high schools that we could go to. 

Jo Reed: So I'm wondering how Miss Eddie Mae's teaching and being in that one-room schoolhouse with all of the kids basically from the same neighborhood, how that shaped your perspective on community? 

Pat Johnson: Well, it shaped us all because basically, we all lived the same. Economically, we’re all the same. We lived in the same area, because at that time, that was segregation, and it was segregation everywhere. We couldn't just live any place in the community or in the city. There were certain areas that we could live in. So we grew up being close. Most of us were very close, our families. We had other children that lived in the neighborhood, but I guess, per se, it was at the time where we knew our place, and the law made sure we knew our place. 

Jo Reed: When did the school close? 

Pat Johnson: The school closed in ‘64, ‘65. It was like in the fall there, ‘64. ‘65, really, during the civil rights area. when the schools were integrated-- I'll say integrated, desegregated. I like to use “Desegregated,” because even though the law had changed, it was still things that you could do-- you couldn't do, even, in an integrated school, I'd say. 

Jo Reed: What became of the building? 

Pat Johnson: Oh, okay. The building became a daycare center. They made it the very first Head Start Center. So this building has always been a place of spiritual education. So it was a daycare center, and it was provided through an organization called BRAD, Black River Development Center. That went on as a daycare for about 10 years, and then they outgrew the building, then it just set for a little while, and the seniors, the black seniors  wanted to use that building. But it became so hard, they just couldn't keep it going. So the building set empty for a while, and it continued to deteriorate more and more. 

Jo Reed: I'm going to fast forward here with your life: you got married. You worked in the Arkansas Department of Human Services. You raised a family. It was after you retired that you became very active in the community.  and you became instrumental in turning your old school into the Eddie Mae Herron Center. What was your vision? 

Pat Johnson: My vision was being a part of a community that I lived in. I lived here, but I worked. Like you said, I worked, I raised a family, and I always wanted to be included into the community that I lived in. That vision that I had every day, I would go by that school building, and I would just think “We're going to lose that building. We're going to lose our history. That's the only part of the history we have left.” So, it was on my mind constantly of what can we do to preserve that building and preserve our history. So one day, and I'll say it was just the grace of God also, that I decided to go and talk to someone at the Chamber of Commerce building. I have to call his name because he was the one that I went to first, and he's the one that helped me to get started. His name was Wayne Gearhart, and he was the president of the Chamber of Commerce at that time. I told him that I would love to have some help with trying to preserve our old African American church and school and make it a place to talk about the history of African Americans in Randolph County. 

Jo Reed: Now, Pat, why was it important for you, and why for Randolph County in general, to have a museum focused on African American history there? 

Pat Johnson: It was very important because it was like we were here, but we were not here. The majority of the white people in the community, did not even know that there was a separate school in that area for the Black children. One day I was talking with a friend of mine, and she did not realize that. She asked me, “Pat, I don't remember you being in my class. Whose class were you in?” We're the same age. I said “Well, I didn't go to school with you.” So, that's what struck me, that particular time, and I thought “We have a history here that nobody even knows.”

Jo Reed: And a history that's so recent that nobody knows. 

Pat Johnson: Exactly. I thought “We've got to do something. I've got to.” So, from then on, I thought “If we had a place where we could talk about the history here in Randolph County, that African Americans helped to build this county, but no one knew we were here. So that right there is what really struck me, and I got more and more involved in trying to be more active. Also, I thought “If we don't capture our history and reveal it to our young people, then they won't know anything about our history either.” So it's just been from one thing to another, Jo,  every day I'm thinking “What can we do? How can we do this to get more involved into the community, and let the community know that about our history?”  There's nothing that you can do alone. I have had so much support of the community, the city, the county, our neighbors to help us to get where we are today with the Eddie Mae Herron Center and the church, that I feel like it has opened doors for Randolph County and the city of Pocahontas that at one time were closed. 

Jo Reed: So in this place where there was segregation, you're opening it up. 

Pat Johnson: I'm open it up, and it has been opened up. It's been opened up in so many ways that many times I've been afraid to have a lot of the different programs and a lot of the different presentations and conversations. But it has opened doors. 

Jo Reed: What’s an event that you were nervous about? 

Pat Johnson: Well, the first thing that I was nervous about was starting the Martin Luther King celebration because before, we did not celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday in Pocahontas. It was a holiday for people that they took that as a shopping day or just a vacation day. That was one of the first things that I wanted to do, is celebrate that holiday, and I was so, so nervous and so scared. When I planned it, <laughs> I did it just like I do all the other activities. I just stepped out on faith. The very first one that we had, we had about 10 people that participated. The next year, it was bigger. The next year, it was even bigger. So it got so big that we had to leave the building and go to another place, to the community center, and have our programs. So those are the kind of things that we do here in Randolph County, just by stepping out and starting it. 

Jo Reed: Randolph County has such a rich history of African-American culture and involvement and social life. But at this point, there's only 1% of the population is African-American. Is that true? 

Pat Johnson: That's right. 

Jo Reed: So that's also why claiming that history is so important. 

Pat Johnson: That's exactly right. It's so, so important. Because if we do not claim it now, and if we don't try to preserve it, it will be lost.. Someone's got to pick it up and take it on. That's the one thing that the Eddie Mae Herron Center has done.  I have to also say, the genealogist here in Pocahontas is the one person that guided me and helped me with research. Cindy Robinette is a genealogist in Randolph County, and she helped us to capture the history that we did not even know. 

Jo Reed: Yeah, the Center's involved in a number of history projects, and that was one of the ones I wanted to ask you about, because you researched and documented the history of enslavement in that area. 

Pat Johnson: Exactly. Thanks to Cindy Robinette. She showed us how to research, and it has been amazing. Once you get started finding your ancestry, you just want to continue to look and look. We basically just knew our own little families. We didn't know so much as who we are, where our ancestors came. It's just been so much research done through the Eddie Mae Herron Center and through the help of people that has been so graciously concerned and helpful to us. 

Jo Reed: Well, while we're talking about this, let's also talk about your efforts in the restoration and preservation of Old Friendship Cemetery and Hardin Cemetery. Tell me about those places? 

Pat Johnson: Oh, yes. I'm glad to speak on that as well. Friendship Cemetery started back in 1800s, 1880. There were enslaved people in this cemetery, along with others, and it had been abandoned. There's like 91 known graves there, but there are many graves that are unmarked. Some of them have rocks by the grave, or they may have a bush planted by them, and we don't know who they are. But we were able to get together a team of people, and Cindy Robinette was in with this too, and we got a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council in 2007, and was able to restore that cemetery, cut down the vegetation. And now we're so proud that we're able to go to that cemetery now and see the headstones and see the graves that are there. We still have work to do. But we have restored that cemetery and also the Hardin Cemetery. It has like 56 known graves, and it was established in the early 1900s. So these are cemeteries that we have worked on to bring back to life because of the struggle that so many people went through. To not have their graves cleaned, to me, was a disgrace. So that's what we've done.   

Jo Reed: Now, you've been celebrating Juneteenth way before Juneteenth <laughs> became a public holiday. 

Pat Johnson: <laughter> Yes, ma'am. 

Jo Reed: How does the Eddie Mae Herron Center celebrate Juneteenth? 

Pat Johnson: Oh, wow. Juneteenth is growing more each year. We have barbecue cook-offs. We have a dinner. The Eddie Mae Herron Center furnishes a community lunch. We have a Juneteenth pageant. We have music. We dance in the street. The city allows us to cut off the street, block it off, so we could have the whole street. We have games for the kids. We just have a time where people come together and enjoy one another. That's something that we need so badly, is to communicate, and that is a communicating time. People from everywhere just come. Most of them stay practically all day. We have a wonderful time. So many people say “I enjoyed that so much. It was just more than I expected.” 

Jo Reed: More than I expected <laughter> was finding out about the hog butchering. I have to sayas somebody who doesn't eat red meat, that was a little hard for me. <laughter> But I really think people should know where their food comes from. <laughter> So, tell us about that, <laughs> how it started, and how did this begin? 

Pat Johnson: Well, I will tell you the way it began, like I was saying from the beginning, to get together the Eddie Mae Herron Center, we had 12 people that had the same mindset that we should do something with the building. So we formed a board and most of these people that were on the boards were senior people. We were talking about some of the things that we wanted to do. Like we want to have educational programs here. We want to educate the next generation on how things used to be. So, one gentleman spoke up and said “Well, we need to teach the young people that you hadn't always been able to go to the store and pick up a package of meat.” He said “Some of our kids don't even know where the pork chops or the bacon come from. So I think we ought to demonstrate how to butcher a hog and how to put meat up for the winter like we did.”  So this is something historical. These people knew about what it took to have meat for the winter. So they felt like we should teach that to the next generation. That's how that all got started, Jo. I said “Okay.” So our county judge was a butcher by trade, and he was one of our board members. So he's the one that done the demonstration. The Boy Scouts would participate. Do you know, this has run into such a wonderful educational program? We have people from everywhere that come to this every year. 

Jo Reed: In 2023, it was part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 

Pat Johnson: Yes, yes, yes! We were so excited! The Smithsonian came and videoed the whole demonstration and invited us to come to the mall in Washington, D.C. and demonstrate, and we did. Oh, Jo, I'm getting excited just talking about it! It was so wonderful. So those are the kind of things that I'm saying that the Eddie Mae Herron Center has been involved with and has brought up history. Sure enough, there's a lot of people that didn't know where their bacon-- and <laughter> the butcher would stand there, and he would cut up the pork chops and lay it out and cut up the ham. It is a wonderful demonstration, and--

Jo Reed: And ends in a big potluck dinner, right? 

Pat Johnson: Yes. After we get that done, everybody sits down, elbow to elbow, and we sit, and we eat, and we laugh, and we talk. That's bringing your community together, and <laughs> it just excites me so much to know that something like that can bring people together. 

Jo Reed: Outreach to other communities is also an aspect of your work. Talk about how you initiated the outreach to the Marshallese community that's in Randolph County? What kind of programs and events have developed from that? 

Pat Johnson: That is another wonderful thing, yes. The Marshallese community is here. They came here for work, for the poultry industry, and their group is misunderstood. It's a different culture, and when you are misunderstood and you're a different culture, you have a tendency to want to stay within your own group. So I felt like there had to be a way to incorporate them into the community because I knew how they felt, because I've been there. I know what it's like to not be wanted because you are different. So I thought “How will I get acquainted with the Marshallese to get them involved?  I don't know their language.” But then I thought “A smile is not a language.” If you smile and have a kind look on your face, that tells you that you're friendly. So I went to their church, and I took a flyer to them, and I told them that I would like for them to come to the Eddie Mae Herron Center for a program that we were having. I think it was Juneteenth. It was our Juneteenth, and I wanted them to bring their young people, their youth group, and dance for us. There was a person there that could translate what I was saying, and that's how I got acquainted with most of the Marshallese. From then on, we have had Easter egg hunts. We have had dances. This year, they participated in our Martin Luther King celebration. They sang and danced. So it has been a wonderful, wonderful thing to get the Marshallese community incorporated into the Eddie Mae Herron Center and into the community 

Jo Reed: The Eddie Mae Herron Center is also really a dynamic space for community fellowship and for activism. You bring candidates in to talk about the issues so they can talk to the community? 

Pat Johnson: Yes, ma'am. That's right. Every election time we have people to come and do their platform there. Along with that, we make it into a fundraiser, so we have pies. There are people in the community that make pies, homemade pies. We auction those pies.  We'll have some speaking, then we'll have some pies auctioned off. That's another time when so many people come together. The building is just wall to wall with people. No particular political party. It's just coming together, and people are having their platform there. That's good. I'm glad you mentioned that, the times when we have speakers to come in.  Sorority groups have their meetings there. We have senior ladies that come and meet and have quilting. Also, during the month of breast cancer, we usually have a presentation about health and about breast cancer. So, we just have a lot. It's hard for me to just explain, talk about what all we do because we do so much, and the best part of it is bringing people together. 

Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you this, Pat. What does the recognition of a Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship mean to you personally, and what you think it might mean to the Eddie Mae Herron Center? 

Pat Johnson: Oh my goodness. Personally, I am just so honored to receive such a prestigious award. What it done for me personally, it also helped me to do research on Bess Lomax. Because after I started doing research on her and found out how wonderful she was, and the many things that she also done with the music and also the research, it really, really made me feel even more special. Because I just never knew that there was such a prestigious award, and I'm still on cloud nine. I'm just really excited about it, and for the Eddie Mae Herron Center. I feel like this will put us even more on the map than we are already, because this is such a great, big award, and for a small little museum, and for such a small little town. Pocahontas, a small town in Arkansas that can do so many great things with the support of your community and your city and your county. It's just mind-boggling. It's just wonderful. 

Jo Reed: It is so well-deserved, all the work that you do, all the work that you've done there, and everything that the Eddie Mae Herron Center is bringing to Pocahontas and to Randolph County. So, thank you, Pat <laughs>. 

Pat Johnson: Well, you are so welcome, and thank you for being so kind.  This has been wonderful. 

Jo Reed: It's been wonderful for me, too, truly. Thank you. That was 2024 National Heritage Fellow—activist and organizer Pat Johnson. You can keep up with the work of the Eddie Mae Herron Center at We’ll have a link in our show notes. Pat and the rest of the 2024 National Heritage Fellows are going to be honored in Washington DC in September—Keep checking for details.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Community activist, organizer and 2024 National Heritage Fellow Pat Johnson, a pillar of the Pocahontas, Arkansas community, shares her work preserving local history and fostering community fellowship through the Eddie Mae Herron Center. She founded the center in the very building where she once attended a segregated one-room school, transforming it into a cornerstone for celebrating Black culture and heritage. Named in honor of her beloved teacher, Miss Eddie Mae Herron, the center stands as a testament to the enduring impact of education and community memory and solidarity.  She is a dedicated and tireless advocate of remembering, researching, and highlighting Black history and material culture in Randolph County. 

Throughout the episode, Johnson discusses the rich history of the Eddie Mae Herron Center, her personal experiences growing up and living in Pocahontas, and the impact of her efforts on the community. She highlights the significance of Juneteenth celebrations at the center, the restoration of historical Black cemeteries, and her outreach to the Marshallese community. Johnson shares her vision, challenges, and triumphs in preserving African American history and fostering a sense of unity and pride within the community. 
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