—by Doria Johnson
When asked about what it means to be an elder, Iva Elaine Carruthers responded, “How do I facilitate the next generations’ understanding of what its call is?” The answer seems to have undergirded her life. A self-described mother/activist, her involvement in the lives and wellness of children, the collective community, the Black church, the academy, international human rights campaigns for equality and justice, calls and actions related to reparations, and race and gender-deconstructions solidifies her as a critical voice across 20th and 21st century America, and beyond. Respected globally, Carruthers activism is considered critical to naming, documenting, and dismantling supremacy and uneven power and discrimination that oppress people and causes revolutionary movements. Iva’s activism did not happen in a vacuum, she comes from a line of women who also refused to accept unjust treatment.
Born in 1945 in Jim-Crow’s Chicago Provident Hospital to Lois Banks Johnson and Tuskegee Airman William H. Johnson, but raised on Evanston’s Westside, Iva’s grandparents, Iva and John Banks, migrated from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1923, following John Banks’ father who came three years earlier. Lois Banks, Iva’s mother, was born in 1918, and thus started school at the increasingly all-Black Foster School. By the time Lois had reached the end of grade school, her mother was employed in an industry that almost 80% of Black women belonged—domestic service work for white families.
Many migrants had to shed their southern-gained college training or professions to earn a living in the north in the one industry were they were guaranteed steady work. Relegated to service work, they reproduced the labor they would rather perform for their own families and children, while also freeing white women from chores so they could go and work outside the home, and a few years later could compete with white men in corporate and industrial industries.
The all-white teaching staff at Foster had designed curriculum that would anchor another generation of domestics by providing in-school training for girls, with teachers bringing their laundry in for the students to wash, iron and fold with district supplied washing machines and ironing boards. Iva Banks, along with other Foster School mothers, formed together to object the plan and forced the school to abandon the domestic-service curriculum. As the president of the PTA, Iva Banks stood to be an example for ‘the next generations’ understandings of what its call is”.
When young Iva Johnson was about in the sixth grade at Foster School a white teacher hit her during a physical encounter. Iva hit the teacher back and told her to “never put her white hands on me.” This ‘insubordination’ was penalized by the school by several actions including ordering a series of tests, which ironically determined she was ‘too smart’ to be at the ‘separate but equal’ school. Thus, she was ‘punished’ to a mostly-white school, Haven, where she would be more ‘intellectually challenged.’ Iva describes it as a punishment on one hand because she was removed from her cohort and friends, but on the other hand, she excelled academically, which was not the intended outcome from school administrators.
At one point at Haven she and other students practiced for an awards ceremony where Iva experienced heart palpitations. The white school nurse advised her mother, Lois, that Iva was indeed on drugs. Offended, Lois pressured school officials enough so that the nurse was fired. These local, seemingly unrelated micro-aggressions were the fuel that fed the larger, national fight for African American civil rights and power, and women and mothers were often central to these successful efforts.
Iva says her father, William Howard Johnson, made her believe the world was her stage, and her mother said she would always defend her right to discover it. The environment was affirming and thus, her father gifted her one of the most important books of the 20th century, “The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” by Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal Her father was president of the NAACP when Dr. King visited Evanston, and so her environment was affirming for her to excel, have confidence, while being instructed on how to become a change-agent.
At ETHS Iva flourished and excelled academically, while also reconnecting with her friends from Foster School. Close to graduation in 1963 the murder of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama shook the world. Attending a school assembly where the administration refused to acknowledge and publicly join the students in mourning, Iva and other students began beating on lockers, in an act of civil disobedience. Not caring about disciplinary actions Iva began to demonstrate her inability to accept the current world order where her people were often discriminated against, the victims of violence and death simply because of their ethnicities.
Also at ETHS, some of Iva’s friends were involved with many bourgeois Black Evanston clubs, some which held cultural events designed to showcase that African Americans could and did embrace the social style and events that white elite Evanstonians enjoyed. In the backdrop was an early 20th century cultural phenomenon of Black artists belonging to the “New Negro” movement where classical education was embraced more than the more ‘embarrassing’ folk culture like blues musicians and music. Iva was asked to join a cotillion, where young women of high school age are feted at an elaborate ball while escorted by worthy young men. Those invited mostly considered themselves part of the Black Evanston elite, because their social positions were obviously elevated over others who did not receive invitations. These balls were elaborate affairs where class, gender, class and economics all were central to the guest list and design.
Iva openly refused to continue this reproductive tradition by participating in one activity she felt did not truly illuminate and celebrate Black cultural production. Instead, she embraced African-centered culture and traditions. She upset some of the elite club members because she refused to participate in reproductions of others and desired to learn more about the genesis of her people and their preferred practices and traditions. There would be a Black Power movement and Black Arts Movement that would soon follow framed by her beliefs. Iva was involved with many of the key players of these movements, which centered and articulated “Black is Beautiful” as its mantra. From there on, Evanstonian Iva Johnson would remain a force in many liberation movements around the globe.
While in college at the University of Illinois, Iva met Ralph Wells, a Northwestern graduate who excelled at both athletics and scholarship. He and Iva married, causing her return to the Chicago area where she graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago, and had her first son Chris. Wells, a Marshall High School graduate, was a well-respected scholar athlete who would go on to be the first Black manager for R.R. Donnelly and Sons, a publishing giant headquartered in Chicago. Ralph Wells, unfortunately, died in a tragic boating accident eleven months after Chris was born, but his legacy lives on. Iva reflected on his philosophical heritage by adding that she has his copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” which indicated his commitment to understanding issues surrounding race and liberation. Fulfilling a promise made to her parents and Wells, Iva finished her PhD in sociology from Northwestern University.
Her philosophies, writing, teachings, leadership and vision would and still does affect human rights around the globe. Keeping young people and mentoring central along the way, and subsequently earning a Masters in Theology, Carruthers has affected many lives around the world.