Kennedy encourages education to be the top priority


Alumna Dorothy Johnson Kennedy, a retired educator who resides in Mobile, Alabama, talks about her life while attending Alabama State University and the impact that it had on her professional career.

Micah Sanders, Editor-In-Chief

In a world full of highly educated politicians, scientists, lawyers, and a plethora of other professions, their success stories all point back to a special class of people, who not only shape and mold individuals into productive members of society, but are the pillars of the future. 

Teachers provide the key to the many doors of opportunity that one may traverse through and allow their students to be fully prepared for whenever opportunity comes their way. However, only a few teachers have the key to open the door to not only your mind but your heart and soul, and Alabama State University alumna Dorothy Kennedy did just that. 

“I used to play with my dolls all the time and pretended like I was their teacher,” Kennedy said.  “I would do their hair and just have them all lined up.” 

Her hobby of playing with her dolls at such a young age flourished into a roaring passion of educating, cultivating and instilling prominent life lessons, inside and outside the classroom, into her students for over 35 years. 

Originating from Mobile, Alabama, Kennedy was fully enriched in the craft of educating as her lineage is full of educators. Raised by her mother, Dorothy Johnson, and her father, Eddie Johnson Jr., she lived the average Black family life with little-to-no discrepancies. 

“We had a beautiful home life,” she said.  “We had two beautiful parents and, as siblings, we got along very well together, and we were just a caring and loving family.”

While Kennedy is the oldest daughter, she has two younger sisters, Arcola J. Law and Carolyn J. Tartt, who are also alumnae of the Hornet Nation. Growing up, Kennedy and her sisters were taught to be respectful and considerate young children. 

Out of all of the lessons learned, Kennedy fondly remembers two golden rules. 

“If you can’t say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all,” Kennedy said. “Also, think before you speak was another anecdote that was instilled in me because once it’s out there, there’s no taking it back.” 

Kennedy attended Central High School, which is part of Bishop State Community College, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1948. Central High School was a racially segregated school up until 1970 where city officials closed the school due to the Mobile desegregation plan. After 1970, the Black students were integrated and were moved to Murphy High School or Davidson High School, depending on where they lived. 

At Central High School, Kennedy’s teachers, faculty, and administrators were highly prestigious and polished. They demanded respect and offered academic and moral support while on her four-year journey. 

“Our teachers always came professional, not in jeans and flip-flops,” Kennedy said. “We really had the utmost respect for our teachers, and they instilled that in us. They were concerned. They were caring. They did home visits. They would call the parents if there were any problems, the parents would respond. And we just had good principals and teachers.” 

In high school, she was a member of the Big Sisters Club, an all-girls organization that allowed mentorship opportunities between the upper and lower classmen, the La Chic Club, which taught etiquette and manners, and Speech Club.  

“In speech club, I learned about enunciation and pronunciation, and these are really vital in today’s society,” she said. “For the La Chic Club, we did the Thanksgiving parade, and we would dress up and be on the float.” 

After graduating from Central High in 1952, Kennedy furthered her education right down the street at the Mobile Branch of what was then named Alabama State College.

Though she did not declare a major in her first two years at the university, she always knew that the blood of teaching and inspiring others was running through her veins. 

In 1954, Kennedy attended the university in its hometown of Montgomery for her junior and senior years, declaring her major as elementary education and her minor as social studies.

While she always had a knack for helping others, her minor in social studies would allow her to be a social worker if her initial plan of being a teacher did not pan out. 

“I’ve always liked people, and I try to do what I can to help families and children,” she said. 

Kennedy took her education very seriously and did not join any outside organizations or clubs because she came to ASU to do one thing and one thing only – get her degree. 

“I was on a mission, and that was to do my work, go to class, make good grades, graduate and get a job,” she said. 

When asked “What sorority are you a part of,” from several people, Kennedy would jokingly respond, “I’m Self Phi Self,” as she had to be considerate of her younger sisters, a strict budget, and to graduate on time with no distractions. 

“I have two other sisters, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad was the breadwinner,” she said. “So I wasn’t just concerned about Dorothy, I had to think about my other two sisters who are younger than I am.” 

Kennedy believed that being a part of a Greek organization would not add any significance to her resume once applying for jobs. 

“I always thought about my resume and getting a job,” she said. “They’re not going to care if you are a Delta, AKA, a Zeta or what have you, that’s not going to help you to get a job.” 

The only obstacle in Kennedy’s way at the university was someone who had the same name as her in several of her classes, so the grades would always be mishandled. However, Kennedy ensured that the issue was fixed immediately as she constantly reminded her professors to input the correct grade for the right person. 

“She was Dorothy Ann Johnson, and I was Dorothy Lois Johnson, and at times, she had received the grades that I had earned,” Kennedy said. “So, I would have to always remind them to check the grades!” 

A resident of Abercrombie Hall, a now male dormitory, two ladies guarded the living space with strictness and close surveillance – Dorm Mother Mary McAlister and Dean of Women Edith Gibson. From the library to driving down the street, McAlister and Gibson had a close eye on any and every one living underneath their roof. 

“We had to sign in and out for everything,” Kennedy said. “If there was a production at the theater, we had to sign out, and when it was over, we had to sign back in. If you had a male friend that wanted to come to visit, they had to sit in the lobby and were not allowed to pass the window.”

Even when Kennedy’s family came to visit her and wanted to take her out for the evening to socialize and check-in, they had to write a letter informing McAlister and Gibson that she would be gone for a period of time. 

Known to be a “Meiser” by her roommates in Abercrombie, Kennedy was very tight with the money she received from her parents to buy toiletries, snacks and other necessities. 

“There was a bakery, and we would go up and buy day-old doughnuts,” Kennedy said. “Later on, we would go and get those doughnuts and lay them on the steam heaters. After a while, the heat from the steam would soften the doughnuts, and they would taste ever so good. But I was very careful with my money as it was locked up in a trunk.” 

Very frugal in the residence hall, but very generous academically, Kennedy appreciates many of the College of Education professors, faculty, and staff who guided her through her journey at ASU. She specifically recalls Dean of Education Charles Johnson (C.J.) Dunn, as someone who instilled excellence into every student. 

“He was just a wonderful person. I never had any qualms with him,” she said. “He was stern but very good along with my professors.” 

Kennedy graduated from ASU in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a minor in social studies. Right out of college in 1956, she began her career as a teacher at George Washington Carver Elementary School in Prichard, Alabama, right next to Blount High School.  Kennedy was responsible for preparing lesson plans, assigning homework, administering tests, and documenting progress. 

Though she only taught at George Washington Carver Elementary for 12 years, Kennedy was blessed with her daughter, Alabama State University Student Life Coordinator Kamela D. Kennedy in 1968, the same year she resigned.

“Back in the day, there was a policy that you had to resign when you came off of maternity leave and then after the baby was born, you would have to let the school system know that your doctor said you could return back to work,” Kennedy said.

 In 1969, Kennedy finally returned to her passion of teaching at William Henry Brazier Elementary then to Elizabeth Chastang Middle School in Mobile, Alabama, the following year due to the desegregation law. Black or white, she set her rules and regulations right up front for her students. 

“I kept my rules intact and provided all the necessary school equipment needed for the year,” Kennedy said. “I announced my rules at the beginning and did not let up.” 

By being assigned grades 6-8, Kennedy taught several subjects but with a focus more on social studies and English. 

Although she was meant to teach about American history and grammar, that was not all Kennedy ingrained into the young children’s minds. 

For the young ladies, Kennedy taught them what she believed to be the proper etiquette and manners in which they should behave.

“Girls are supposed to be seen and never heard,” she said. “I would tell them to have some standards and to not let the boys fill your head with sweet nothingness. Because the same thing they say to you, they can be saying to another girl.”

For the young Black boys, Kennedy taught them to be wary and cautious of the new world surrounding them due to integration in every aspect of life. 

“I told them to be careful because some Black boys were talking to some white girls,” she said. “Because you can be home, and here comes the policeman coming to pick you up, taking you to the youth center because some girl lied and said you touched her in an inappropriate place. Words are very powerful, so I always told them to be careful.” 

Instilling those powerful words of wisdom was of no reward or recognition to Kennedy but was just something she loved doing out of the kindness of her heart. 

Recognizing that college is not for everyone, she encouraged her students to explore different pathways and avenues to ensure success. From picking up a trade or skill to going to the military, Kennedy showcased the feasibility in it all.  

“If you want to be a dishwasher, there’s an art to that,” she said. “The way that you are supposed to clean those plates and the silverware takes skill and precision. And I said, if it’s in construction or whatever and you have to dig a ditch, it’s an art there too. You can’t just get that shovel and just go ballistic. It’s a certain way you’re going to have to use that shovel to dig that ditch. So I always instilled whatever you’re going to do or be.”

After serving 24 dedicated years at Elizabeth Chastang Middle School as a chairperson and educator, Kennedy retired June 10, 1992, gaining some accolades under her belt, including Teacher of the Year. 

Three decades later, Kennedy’s strong presence in the classroom has blessed her with the opportunity to see her former students being successful in their careers and professions. 

Crossing paths at the local supermarket or checking in on her well-being, her students make the time to honor and celebrate the woman who planted the seed of success and wisdom. 

“A lot of my students are fully grown and have children, and I would cross paths with them at the grocery store and wouldn’t even recognize them. They would yell, ‘Mrs. Kennedy’ and come and embrace me with a big hug,” Kennedy said. “Some of them surprise me with flowers and a monetary card on Mother’s Day. So I am just very blessed to have sparked something in them for them to still have me in their memory. I really didn’t realize that they loved me so dearly.” 

In addition to the flowers and monthly check-ins by some of her students, Kennedy greatly remembers one student, Joyce Chastain, who constantly goes above and beyond to thank, not only her but her daughter Kamela as well. 

“One year for Christmas, [Joyce] sent both me and Kamela a Michael Kors purse,” Kennedy said. “I’m just so grateful to the Lord that I tried to instill things in them, and I really enjoyed my 35 years in education as a teacher.” 

Since her retirement, Kennedy is not just twiddling her thumbs and staring at the television screen. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, she was very active at her church, Mount Zion A.M.E., located in Mobile, Alabama. She is the president of several organizations, including the missionary society and is also a deaconess. Along with those titles, she is a choir member, a class leader, and a part of the Culinary Arts Guild. 

Outside of church, Kennedy and her late husband Kamel William Kennedy would travel all over the country until his health started to decline. 

The couple met each other at a wedding practice in the 1950s. However, Kamel was in a relationship at the time, but a couple of days later, Dorothy received a call, and the rest is history. 

“Well, his brother and I were classmates,” Kennedy said. “And I actually met him at the practice, and what happened is, he was dating someone else and he came to pick the lady up, and we were waiting for them to finish the choir rehearsal. A couple days went by, and I got a call and it just went from there…. We got married December 19, 1959.” 

While she was a fellow Hornet over half a century ago, Kennedy continues to be thankful for all of the lessons learned while at the nest. 

“Actually taking classes and then being in the classroom as a teacher is certainly different,” she said. “Once it’s your classroom, it’s all on you. So I just felt that with my classes and instructors, I was fully prepared.” 

To the current students at ASU, she emphasizes the importance of academics as it is vital to be successful in life. 

“Focus more on your education and then a social life,” Kennedy said. “It’s nice to have a social life, but don’t let the social life overtake what you’re there for. You’re there to prepare yourself for the future.” 

As those words reign especially true for Kennedy, she hopes that the students at ASU take into consideration her words of advice as they allowed her to be where she is now – happily retired and still a beacon of light to her former students 50 years later.  

“Stay on top of your assignments and be very attentive in class with your professors,” Kennedy said.  “Even though there will be activities at the school, make sure you have your priorities right.”