Guela Gayton Johnson was the first African American librarian to head a University of Washington departmental library. She was the oldest grandchild of John T. Gayton (1866-1954) and Magnolia Gayton (1880-1954), black pioneers who settled in Seattle in 1888. After receiving her Master of Library Science degree from the University of Washington in 1969, she became the first professional librarian to head the UW's School of Social Work library, a post she held until her retirement in 1992. When her aunt, Louise Gayton Phelps (1917-1988), died in 1988, Guela Gayton Johnson also became the matriarch of one of Seattle’s outstanding black families.
Guela Johnson was born in 1927 to Virginia Gayton (1902-1993) and John Jacob Gayton (1899-1969) in Seattle and grew up in the Central Area, attending Madrona Elementary School, Meany Junior High School, and graduating from Garfield High School. Although she came from a family of librarians -- her grandfather was the U.S. District Court librarian from 1933 to 1953, and her aunt, Willetta Riddle Gayton (1909-1991), was the first African American professional librarian in Seattle and the second to graduate from the University of Washington Library School -- Guela Johnson's library experiences were unique.
As early as 1945, when Guela was a student at Garfield High School, the efforts of the University of Washington to hire minorities led to her part-time employment as a library page. This was the beginning of her 48-year association with the UW. She continued working there as she pursued a degree in sociology, and was promoted from library page to a staff position at the circulation desk, and later became circulation desk supervisor.
Two dedicated librarians, Helen Johns and Dorothy Cooper, were influential in directing her toward librarianship as a career. Faye Allen (1922-2012), the mother of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018), and her husband, Kenneth Allen (1920-1983), associate director of libraries as the university, also encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in librarianship. Faye Allen and Guela Johnson worked together in circulation and became life-long friends. When Paul Allen invited a group of friends for a week's cruise to Alaska in 1998, Guela Johnson and her husband Oscar Johnson (1919-1999) were among the guests.
The School of Social Work Library
After being awarded a fellowship, Johnson studied in the graduate school of librarianship and received her MLS degree in 1969. She became the first professional librarian to head the School of Social Work library, one of the 18 branch libraries on campus. From a small collection of 1,500 volumes and 35 serial titles, she expanded its holdings to more than 50,000 by the time of her retirement in 1992. The collection she built supports the curriculum of the undergraduate and master's programs, and the research components of the Ph.D. program.
Her participation in faculty meetings of the school and the Social Work Library committee helped foster open communication, which promoted a vibrant library collection and the provision of important services to students and faculty. The UW's School of Social Work has been ranked third among more than 90 schools of social work in the United States by the Council on Social Work Education. The scholarly work of the faculty, through the excellence of the library collection, was the basis for this distinction.
Guela Johnson is credited with professional input into the planning of the second floor library in the new School of Social Work building on 15th Avenue NE, which opened in 1980. She saw to it that the shelving was accessible, that there was adequate light, that furniture was conducive to studying and could be flexibly arranged, that administrative space and reference areas were secure, and that there were study rooms and provisions for the handicapped.
On May 27, 2010, the social-work library hosted a ceremony celebrating its history and honoring its staff. A prominent photograph of Guela Johnson was displayed, acknowledging her tenure as the first librarian to manage the library. An exhibit featured the various places where the library had been located: Thompson Hall in 1934, Social Work Hall in 1955, and Eagleson Hall in 1966. It was in 1980 that the library moved into the new School of Social Work building. The new plans for this second-floor room include housing much of the collection in Suzzallo. The space vacated will be devoted to group study rooms, computer rooms, and research.
In addition to her regular library responsibilities, Ms. Johnson was a sponsor of “BRIDGES," a special summer library instruction training program for racial minority students, predominately African American, in preparation for their entrance into the School of Social Work. The Seattle Public Schools funded a work-study program and Guela Johnson hired and trained high-school students to work in the social work library.
Her expertise helped develop the Ethnic Cultural Center Library, and her presence was noted on various university committees, including the African American Studies Executive Committee, the Black Action and the Affirmative Action committees, the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and the Search Committee
Ms. Johnson was one of the planners for the annual meeting of the Schools of Social Work library section of the Council on Social Work Education. She enjoyed meeting other librarians from around the country, making long-lasting friendships, and sharing information pertinent to the changes in the field. She presented the following papers to library workshops of the council:
“Social Work Library: Factors Affecting Collection Development,” New Orleans, February 27, 1978.
“Book Theft in the Library,” Phoenix, Arizona, February 27, 1977.
“The Library and the Ethnic Minority Content in Social Work Educations,” Philadelphia, February 19, 1976.
As a founding member of the Seattle Chapter of Links, Inc., Guela Johnson was active for more than 50 years in this national service organization of predominately African American women, which originated in Philadelphia in 1947. In addition to assisting in art and youth projects and organizing its archives through the years, she chaired the committee that published a history of the Seattle chapter for its 50th anniversary in 2005. Titled The History of the Greater Seattle Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, 1955-2005, the history was written by Turkiya L. Lowe of Redmond.
Guela Johnson served on the board of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and its collection committee. She wrote a grant to the Seattle Foundation requesting funds for assistance in the organization and storage of the society’s archives and artifacts. This $10,000 grant enabled the collection committee of the society to seek professional guidance, and the collection was digitized and housed in the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). Her other board memberships included the University of Washington Faculty Club Advisory Board, the Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center Board, and the Crisis Clinic Advisory Board.
She was a member of the NAACP, U.W. Retirement Association, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Council on Social Work Education, UW Friends of the Library, and the American Library Association.
In 2003, Guela Gayton Johnson was a recipient of the Loren Miller Bar Association Community Service Award. The award stated that "in the past 50 years she has been a leader paving the way for other African American faculty in the world of academia and librarianship. Stimulating and enhancing scholarly research on issues affecting African Americans, locally and nationally has been her life’s work."
An associate, Gloria Leonard, made this tribute:
"Today, a little better than 19 years later, I am Director of the Seattle Public Library’s Division of Neighborhood Library Services. I see over 22 branches with a budget of $5,000,000. I have accomplished much. A large part of the credit can be traced back to you and the role model you demonstrated daily to the black professionals and others who have had the opportunity to work or come in contact with you."
Guela Johnson was one of 23 librarians featured in the book African American Librarians in the Far West: Pioneers and Trailblazers, edited by Binnie Tate Wilkin .
Having spent more than half of her life on the campus of the University of Washington, Guela Gayton Johnson expressed great satisfaction in her library service and the many other activities was involved in there over the years.
Johnson and her husband Oscar had two daughters, Virginia G. Humes and Gayle A. Johnson. Guela Gayton Johnson died in October 2018 at the age of 91.