PUBLISHED:July 28, 2021

Johnson '64, one of first Black students to attend Law School and university, dies at 81


Walter T. Johnson, Jr., joined classmate David Robinson II and Divinity graduate student R.L. Speaks in integrating Duke in the fall of 1961.

Walter Johnson '64 Walter Johnson '64

Walter T. Johnson, Jr., ’64, who helped to integrate Duke University as one of the first Black students to enroll at the Law School, died July 24. He was 81.

A native of Greensboro, Johnson attended North Carolina A&T State University on an ROTC scholarship and served as student body president. After graduating with a degree in Engineering Physics, he was granted a deferral of his required service in the Air Force to attend law school in the fall of 1961.

Johnson planned on attending Columbia, but Dean Elvin R. “Jack” Latty, who at the urging of students and faculty had sought to admit Black students and had been recruiting applicants from Black colleges, persuaded him to enroll at Duke. He joined classmate David Robinson II and Divinity graduate student R.L. Speaks as the university’s first Black students.

At Duke, Johnson was president of the first Moot Court Board and served as treasurer and as vice president of the Duke Bar Association. He won a clerkship with North Carolina District Judge Elreta Alexander following graduation.

Johnson would later serve as an adjunct faculty member, teaching Trial Practice, and a member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors.

"The faculty and students made a concerted effort to make me feel welcome,” he told Duke Law Magazine in 1984. "But certain incidents reminded me that Duke had been a rigidly segregated institution."

Following his military service, Johnson was named North Carolina’s first Black assistant district attorney in 1968. He entered private practice in 1980 and was the first Black member of the North Carolina Bar Association’s Board of Governors. He retired from law practice in 2004

A well-known civic leader, Johnson served as chairman of the Greensboro Public School Board, helping usher in the desegregation of the city’s schools, and was appointed by Gov. Jim Hunt to be the first Black chairman of the state’s Parole Commission. He also served as chairman of the state’s Inmate Grievance Board.

Read Johnson’s full obituary here.