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Black History Month: 'A gift from the Lord and I praise him for it every day'

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By Calen McKinney

She can often be found tapping the ivory keys for a church or a number of choirs.

But while Letha Johnson is known for her piano playing ability, she says she doesn't know how to read music - she learns songs simply by hearing them.

Johnson, 63, was born and raised in Greensburg, where she lived off and on with several of her relatives.

Her mother was sick when she was a child, Johnson said, so she was raised mainly by her aunt and uncle, George and Mary Taylor, who weren't able to have children of their own.

"They wanted me," she said.

As a young child, Johnson spent much of her time attending church.

"I dedicated my life to the church."

She began playing the piano when she was 11. It stuck, she said, and now she plays for several local choirs.

"My childhood was full of music," she said. "That's my enjoyment. Church, singing and playing the piano."

She said she took music lessons for about three months when she was a child, until her teacher told her she couldn't continue taking them.

"[My teacher said], 'You can't do this. God has given you a special gift.'"

That gift, she said, is being able to play a song after merely hearing it played by someone else.

"That's a gift from the Lord and I praise him for it every day," she said.

Johnson attended first through eighth grade at a two-room all-black school in Greensburg. After completing her studies there, she attended Green County High School, where she became the first black graduate. After high school, Johnson attended a year of classes at Campbellsville College.

While at the two-room school, Johnson often led her class in singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb." She also played the piano for the devotional each Friday.

"Finally, I got a little bit good at it," she said. "And I started playing on a regular basis about 20 years ago."

She says music just came naturally to her.

"I enjoy listening to a song and learning how to play them," she said. "My favorite thing is singing."

Johnson moved to Campbellsville 37 years ago after meeting her husband.

"I fell in love with this man," she said.

She and her husband, Ernest Ray, have a daughter, Melanie.

Johnson has worked for several different businesses, including Edmonton Manufacturing Co., General Electric Telephone Co., Airview Motel and Harmon Furniture Co. Now, Johnson works with her husband as a custodian for a few local businesses and Woodlawn Christian Church.

She also spends her time playing the piano for the Zion District Choir, the Zion District Laymen's Brotherhood Choir, the Gospel Explosion Choir, the 100 Voices of Praise Choir and several choirs at her church, Second Baptist in Greensburg.

"Anybody who needs me, I'll play," she said. "Yeah, I stay busy."

Johnson also teaches Sunday school, is a church clerk and vice president of missions and sings with the adult choir and Zion District Chorus. She also sings the third Tuesday of each month at Green Hill Manor Nursing Home.

Johnson describes herself as a people person, she said, and hasn't had any problems with anyone because of her race.

As a young child, however, Johnson said she remembers not being allowed to sit in certain places or eat at certain restaurants.

"I didn't know too much about that," she said.

When she attended high school, Johnson said, there wasn't much racial tension.

"I guess all that calmed down by the time I was in high school."

Johnson said she believes that she didn't experience any prejudice growing up, perhaps because she always lived in town with a mixture of people.

"We played together, ate together and just had fun."

Though she hasn't experienced racism firsthand, Johnson said she believes it still exists today - to a degree.

With the recent election of the United States' first black president, Barack Obama, Johnson said she believes the world has changed.

"We've moved forward," she said, "A change was made. We made history on that day."

To combat racism, she said, people need to love each other more.

"If we had more love for each other," she said, "if they would just try and love each other and not look at the color [of a person's skin] and look at who you are as a person."

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.