‘You’re not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for that next generation of women’ — Andscape

Charlene Johnson never anticipated the doors Title IX and basketball would open during her collegiate and coaching days. In her career, Johnson was added to a long list of firsts at South Carolina State as its first full-time female head coach and the first woman to serve as director of athletics.

In 1976, Johnson received a scholarship to South Carolina State and was a member of the Lady Bulldog team that won the 1979 Division II Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) women’s basketball championship. The AIAW was a precursor to today’s NCAA. Johnson’s accomplishments earned her a spot in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and South Carolina State halls of fame.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the former South Carolina State star spoke with Andscape about her early playing days for the Lady Bulldogs and the impact Title IX has had on her career.

Growing up in a very rural community, I actually lived in a small town called Fairfax, South Carolina, which is about an hour from Orangeburg, where South Carolina State is. Growing up, all you wanted to do was to play and maybe find a way to get out of the house every now and then. So basketball was a way that I could accomplish both of those; it wasn’t a lot to do back then. So sports was it if you really wanted to have fun and do something.

My high school team had a very good nucleus of young ladies who played sports where I’m from because, again, it’s not a huge town, it still is not. We had a vibrant track and field team. Basketball and track were very good sports for women.

My mother would not allow me to play basketball until my junior year in high school because she said the No. 1 priority was, of course, academics. So again, I grew up playing with my male cousins and was really good at it, but never really thought about playing really hard until my junior year. At that time, it was just natural for me. Somehow I got noticed by coach Willie Simon, and coach Lyman Foster at South Carolina State and they came to watch me play one night. Unbeknownst to me, that was going to result in a full scholarship. That’s a beautiful story. I was just out there having fun.

As it relates to sports, there was just not a lot that I can recall about women, other than some of the young ladies who played ahead of me. But my mother was the role model for me outside of sport at that time. My mother was propelling me and pushing me to make sure I get out there and did my very best in whatever I did.

Coming from a small town, if you are pretty good, you stand out. But when I got to South Carolina State, everybody stood out. So, it was an eye-opener for me that so many women were so well versed in sports. I was so excited to be a part of it.

Going out playing pickup basketball, I’m like, I think I need to catch the first bus going home, because all of these girls can play. But it evolved into a great sisterhood of women who are doing well to this day, having guidance from two male coaches who really put us in the forefront of the sports world. So it has been a great experience. I would not change it at all, going to Fargo, North Dakota, in 1979 and winning the AIAW national championship for small colleges that is the epitome of my collegiate career. Not so much that we won, but the experience we had as African American females in the big scheme of sports, women, it was wonderful.

Coming from South Carolina, all of us were just struck with amazement, like, what are we doing out here. Not ever seeing snow pretty much at that age, then, of course, dealing with actually the whole experience of the game. It’s still just that whole opportunity of taking my first flight of competing against other schools that now I understand the impact of, but as a student, you were just enjoying the ride. Again, sports gave us the opportunity to have a plane ride to get your first pair of thermals because you are going to a snow-ridden part of the United States. Just the small things that people take for granted that helped mold you to where you are today.

It helped blossom the town because the awareness was there that you have an HBCU (historically Black college or university) whose team was totally African American and coaches African American actually getting the opportunity to go outside of South Carolina and compete against what was the best of the best at that time. I can tell you women’s basketball just flourished. People were I’m sure calling it that. When I started there, I played center at 5 foot 8 and I was playing the four and the five. In later years, we started getting girls much taller and I had to go to a two or three. So it opened the door not just for the sporting world, but the opportunity for women to receive scholarships for education.

I have been one of the fortunate ones to get a scholarship, and then continue my professional career in the world of sport. So for Title IX, being a part of what is continuing to propel women in sports is a wonderful thing. As you know, it’s been a tough road. I can think more about Title IX in my employment days when, in 1983, the then-athletic director, Dr. Willie Tam, called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking to hire the first full time female coach in the history of South Carolina State and we want that to be you.’ I’m down in my hometown coaching, volleyball, softball, basketball, teaching classes, just working day in and day out, and not even thinking about that being a job because I just loved what I was doing at that time.

I did not notice I was female. When I took that job, I looked at myself as a coach. Other people looked at me as a female and I had to make it clear early on that I was going to do a job just like the male coaches were. The scariest thing for me was learning the lay of the land as it relates to what you need to do in order to get the job done.

You’re not given a rule book; when you take jobs, it is on-the-job experience. So I had some people that really helped me along the way and made me feel comfortable early. My philosophy has always been, as long as the next day comes, I want to be a part of it.

So when Dr. Tam called me to come to South Carolina State for an interview, I’m just as green as I can be not really understanding what he was talking about, and the impact that it would have, not only on my life but the young ladies who I recruited and brought into the world of sports. Hopefully introducing them to a means to an end, that this is going to help me not only get my degree, but it help me become a role model for young ladies to see that there are things out there in this male-dominated world that women can do. So when I’m looking at Title IX from that aspect, it has really blossomed and opened the doors for all women in sports.

I was going along doing my coaching duties having the best time and the president called me in and said, ‘Hey, … we’d like for you to take on … the interim athletic director’s job.’ And I’m like, Are you serious? It was just that simple. I actually worked at South Carolina State for 31 years in athletics. I was athletics director for 12 years. … I served as assistant coach for a year in basketball and coaching and other sports as well. So I got to see firsthand, watching the whole program evolve and it has always held and will continue to hold a very special place in my heart because I’m a Lady Bulldog to the day I die. That’s just how deep the roots run for women’s basketball and South Carolina State.

I am looking forward to the day that the program goes back to its rightful place, because we owned the conference for many years. That’s not bragging. That’s really a fact. When we walked into the gym, the old saying was, well, we know they’re going to win, but the question is by how much. We were taught that we had to own it, we had to really know that we were good because not that we were cocky, but we worked extremely hard. So I think it has transitioned to my work ethic now, because there are no shortcuts if you want to be successful. We were just taught that you have to work hard to be good at what you’re trying to be good at. So, I mean, I’ve enjoyed watching it. I’ve embraced the peaks and the valleys and again, looking forward to us peaking again.

Women can do these jobs. Women have to earn respect by first of all being respectful and respectable. People are not going to respect you in a profession that is not respecting yourself. There’s a way you should carry yourself. There’s a way you should talk with the way you should push. It’s just a balancing act. I’ve had women’s basketball players come to me and say, ‘Miss Johnson, can I intern with you? I want to be an athletic director, and I just want to watch you do what you do.’ So it’s a teachable moment.

Every time I walked through these doors, and every time I walked through those doors in South Carolina State, I used to always feel like as women, we had to get up a little bit early in the morning and stay a little bit later at night. Because regardless of whether people wanted to admit it or not, it is a difference. But it’s getting better. 

Nonetheless, we’re getting the job done. So you have to speak up, you have to speak out, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing because you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for that next generation of women who should be given the opportunity to do what the men are doing.

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, “Go Irish.”

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