October 26, 2018

Guela Gayton Johnson, a distinguished librarian, influential community leader and matriarch of one of Seattle’s prominent African American families, passed away on Oct. 8, 2018, at age 91. Born in 1927 in Seattle’s Central Area, Johnson became the first professional librarian to head the UW School of Social Work's library, a post she held until her retirement in 1992.

Johnson, whose grandparents settled in Seattle in 1888, was a lifelong Husky. After graduating from Garfield High School, she enrolled at UW and pursued a degree in sociology while working as a library page and then a staff member and circulation desk supervisor. After receiving a master’s degree in library science in 1969, she was hired as the librarian at the School of Social Work, becoming the first African American to head a UW departmental library. 

In a condolence letter to Johnson’s family, UW President Ana Mari Cauce wrote, “Her incredible commitment to provide educational opportunities for others will forever be an inspiration to so many of us at the UW and across the region. Through her professional accomplishments on campus and at the School of Social Work and her extensive involvement in our community…Guela leaves a powerful legacy.”

Johnson came from a family of distinguished librarians. According to HistoryLink.org, her grandfather, who was born in Mississippi to former slaves, served as the U.S. District Court librarian in Washington, D.C., from 1933 to 1953; her aunt, Willetta Riddle Gayton, was the first African American professional librarian in Seattle and the second to graduate from the UW Library School.

Johnson expanded the holdings at the School of Social Work from 1,500 volumes to more than 50,000 by the time of her retirement. She was also instrumental in the planning effort for the library’s new location when the School moved to a newly constructed building on 15th Avenue NE in 1980. The School of Social Work library was subsequently incorporated into the UW Health Sciences Library.

She was a sponsor of BRIDGES, a summer library instruction program for entering racial minority students at the School of Social Work. She also hired and trained high school students to work in the library as part of a Seattle Public Schools work-study program.

Other groups and projects at UW that benefited from Johnson’s involvement and guidance included the Ethnic Cultural Center Library, African American Studies Executive Committee, Black Action Committee, Affirmative Action Committee, Educational Opportunity Program, UW Retirement Association and UW Friends of the Library. 

Outside the UW, Johnson was a tireless community leader and activist. She was a founding member of the The Links, Inc. Greater Seattle Chapter, a national service organization of mostly African American women. She served on the board of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, where she was instrumental in the archiving and computerization of the society’s collection, which now resides at the Museum of History & Industry. She was also a member of the NAACP and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. 

In 2003, Johnson received the Loren Miller Bar Association Community Service Award for 50 years of leadership in “paving the way for other African American faculty in the world of academia and librarianship.”

Johnson was preceded in death by her husband, Oscar D. Johnson (1919–1999). She is survived by two daughters, Virginia G. Humes and Gayle A. Johnson; five siblings; and a large extended family.

See The Seattle Times obituary.