Remembering a fraternity brother who broke through color barrier

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light. 

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Having turned 81 in September during the lethal COVID-19 pandemic, and facing the challenges of aging and losing loved ones more frequently, I’m reluctant to glance at the “In Memoriam” lists from University City High School, Washington University and its law school, and from my beloved college fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, where I made lifelong friends. 

In recent days my fraternity, which flourished at Washington U. from 1921-1971, suffered the loss of Brother Rafer Lewis Johnson, who broke the color-line at UCLA by becoming the first African American to join a social fraternity in the university’s history. For Pi Lam nationally Johnson’s membership in our Upsilon Chapter was a great source of pride. While our Missouri Pi Chapter at Washington U. was mostly Jewish, when Pi Lam was founded in 1895 at Yale University it became the first non-sectarian college fraternity in the United States.

Ian Lowe, national Executive Director of Pi Lam, issued a poignant statement that Johnson “entered the Chapter Eternal on December 2” at the age of 86.  A black mourner’s band was placed on the fraternity crest for the following 30 days.

Johnson joined Pi Lam in 1955, when he was already an international track and field superstar. 

Johnson won the Gold Medal in the grueling decathlon at the 1960 Olympics and Gold and Silver Medals at the Pan American Games.

Later, at the urging of Eunice Shriver, Johnson helped organize and raise substantial funds for the Special Olympics, one of many causes he supported through the years. Kurt Streeter, sportswriter for The New York Times, compares Johnson to Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe for breaking the racist color-lines in their sports.  

Streeter recalls his father’s advice:  “Be like Rafer Johnson.”  

Very good advice indeed!


Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.