Sherrice Johnson: Finding her future in history

History major Sherrice Johnson’s educational journey has literally taken her to the other side of the world and back again.

History major Sherrice Johnson’s educational journey has literally taken her to the other side of the world and back again. All the while, she was learning about history, making some of her own and helping others chart a new path to their future.

“When I came to Temple, I learned about an intergenerational learning program that teaches seniors to read. I felt compelled to volunteer for it — all of our seniors are living history and there is so much we can learn from them if we just take the time to listen,” said Johnson, 39, who will graduate with her history degree from Temple on May 11. “There was one gentleman, 65-years-old and deacon in his church. Each Sunday, one of the church deacons was chosen to read a psalm but he was never able to do that.”

Johnson said they worked tirelessly together to help him learn Psalm 46 — it begins “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.”

“After 17 years with the church, he was able to get up and read to the congregation,” she said. “I couldn’t honestly say which of us got more out of that experience.”

Johnson’s own journey to completing her degree has a history all its own.

“Before coming to Temple, I studied history at Clark Atlanta University. I was studying Asian history and taking Japanese as well,” she said. “I also took some classes at Morehouse College, an all-male school, which was an interesting experience as I originally went to an all-girls school.”

Johnson went to college straight from high school, she said, but returned to the Philadelphia area to help with the family business, a thrift store off of 52nd Street that supported numerous missions and other charitable endeavors.

“I was contemplating going back to practicing social work for a time, but I decided it was time to go back to school — not my first foray into going back to complete my degree. I can make a living, but I wanted a career,” she said. “I began researching international classes at Temple and applied to Temple Japan.”

After taking the scenic route toward her degree — and building up an impressive personal history along the way — Johnson returned to the U.S. and became part of the Temple Ambler campus community, her sights firmly set on completing her history degree.

“I am a people person, I get along well with people and I like to share my passion for history with them. I’d be perfectly happy as a tour guide for Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia — the nation’s oldest residential street — or an historical guide for Camden,” she said. “I love to learn how people played a part certain decisions that had national and global impacts and how those impacts affected people in return. I love studying the ebb and flow of mankind.”

The beauty of history, Johnson said, “is that you can never get away from it.”

“With current history, there is always something in the past to compare it to, there is always something relevant, something self-evident,” she said. “Every era seems fight the current of change before pulling itself up by the bootstraps and re-dedicating itself to the maturation of society. Our today is always informed by our yesterdays just as our tomorrows will look back at the lessons of today for guidance.”  

Armed with a passion for libraries and a natural talent for curating an eclectic mix of tangible and digital content, Johnson became the first student curator of an historical exhibit for the Temple University Ambler Library. Her exhibit, “Where Opulence Meets Pestilence: A Showcase of Cemeteries of the Rich and Poor,” placed a particular focus on the rich, though often grim, history of Washington Square in Philadelphia. What today is a beautiful city park — a natural respite for people of all ages to take a moment to catch their breath in the hustle and bustle of city life — is built upon centuries of human tragedy.

“The history of Philadelphia’s Washington Square Park is truly fascinating. In the 1700s it was a burial site for the city’s African American community. It was a potter’s field, a grave site for the poor and indigent,” said Johnson. “It’s such an interesting juxtaposition, how people currently engage the location of what was once essentially a mass grave. It was a burial ground for the poor but today it is an area of such wealth and prosperity.”

Examining the use of burial grounds in Philadelphia, Johnson said, “is a way to further examine the use of space as a way to segregate and integrate groups of people.”

“At the same time, these once sacred spaces can help us examine how repurposing these spaces can create a new social construct for everyone to enjoy,” she said. “In colonial times, old burial grounds were community meeting places that denoted one’s race, religion and class. Burial grounds, especially ones like Washington Square Park, over time bred gentrification of these sacred spaces. As an historian, I want to celebrate the complex history of spaces like this.”

Johnson’s next stop takes her deep interest in people and how they lived and places and how they were used to a whole new level.

“I’m going to get my master’s degree in spatial demography and geospatial intelligence. Demography uses vital statistics — birth and death rates, crop yields, census information — of a given location to derive certain subsets of data,” she said. “Using GIS (Geographic Information Systems), it’s aligning history and theoretical practice and connecting it with science. I want to use this type of research to develop my own formulas and potentially study space — I’m fascinated by the seven Earth-size planets recently found by NASA (in the TRAPPIST-1 system).  What can we learn from them while we study the history of our own planet?”

If there is one thing that Johnson has learned while at Temple, it’s “perseverance,” she said.

“Temple’s complex, rich history is built on perseverance. Temple Ambler started as a school to teach women professions at a time when that was almost unheard of — that’s perseverance!” she said. “As a returning student, that resonates — it’s the constitutional base for the phrase ‘Temple Made.’ Don’t give up, you can’t, and there will be people that will help you along the way.”