Karen G. Johnston '89
The Rev. Karen G. Johnston ’89 can trace her lifelong anti-racist activism to her time at Hamilton. During a theology class she learned about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

“Thirty-three years after that lecture, I visited the communities that bear witness to this horrific act of violence to show the ugly truth we should not forget,” Johnston says. “I poured holy water from my congregation that marks where Till’s body washed up out of the Tallahatchie River.”

On a sabbatical from her ministry in East Brunswick, N.J., Johnston undertook a 17-day journey this spring to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama through her connection with the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project. The Lost Souls of 1818 include 137 African Americans from New Jersey who, through deception, were stolen into slavery and sent to the Deep South by a slave ring headed by a corrupt Middlesex County judge. The project’s aim is to build a memorial to these community members.

Johnston visited sites in Louisiana likely associated with the Lost Souls, such as a town that began as a plantation owned by the brother-in-law of the corrupt judge, and Avery Island, which started as a plantation with enslaved laborers. Her pilgrimage also included points along the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama and Mississippi.

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On the Hill, Johnston said she was the only women’s studies major in her class. She earned two master’s degrees: one from Smith College School for Social Work in 1995 and a master’s of divinity from Hartford International University for Religion and Peace and Andover Newton Theological School in 2016. She was ordained into the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

“I went on the pilgrimage because this nation’s ‘original sin’ is the twin violence of the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans,” Johnston reflects. “We live in the wake and wash of these acts. It is in facing this challenging reality that collective liberation, alongside healing, emerges to create resilience and hope.”

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