First known African American/Black woman to receive her national certification from RID – 1977.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Shirley was considered by many within the deaf and hearing community as an exemplar for music interpretation into American Sign Language (ASL). Always passionate about her work, Shirley was a skilled professional who was one of the first known African Americans to receive her national certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in 1977. She was a proud CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) who learned ASL from her Deaf parents and later explored interpreting as a work option, which later turned into her legacy.
Perhaps most known for her 37 years serving as a member of the acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, she leaves a legacy of her gift of providing unparalleled interpretations of the music and poetry of the group.
Early in Shirley’s career, she provided interpreting services for a variety of life experiences – for students in high school and college classrooms, for employees in staff meetings, job training, and professional conferences, in legal settings and in religious services. In health care, Shirley interpreted with the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, and with Project Access of Deafpride, Inc., who sponsored her first international assignment to Nairobi, Kenya as interpreter for a Deaf delegate to a United Nations conference.
Shirley’s extensive performing arts interpreting include an off-Broadway production of Lost in the Stars, and with a host of artists including Bernice Johnson Reagon, Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, Toshi Reagon and Big Lovely, Holly Near, Pete Seeger, and In Process. Shirley also interpreted for such stellar writers as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Audrey Lorde.
Shirley was first to recognize the need for more African-American interpreters when she founded the organization BRIDGES to focus attention on Black Deaf consumers and interpreters. Shirley was also a founding member of the organization Black Deaf Advocates. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published a tribute to her entitled Shirley Childress Johnson, the Mother of Songs Sung in ASL, pointing out the distinction Shirley has brought to the field. Shirley has been recognized for her interpreting service to the community with awards from Deaf advocacy organizations the Silent Mission Circle at Shiloh Baptist Church, Deafpride, Inc., Women Unlimited, and National Alliance of Black Interpreter, District of Columbia chapter.
Shirley held a bachelor’s degree in Deaf Education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a Honorary Doctorate Degree received from Chicago Theological Seminary. She authored several articles on her experiences as a CODA and her work as a Sign language interpreter and also was a recipient of the Trailblazer Award presented by the National Alliance of Black Interpreters based in Washington, DC. Shirley’s sons, Reginald and Deon, and sisters Maxine and Khaula all know American Sign Language.
Shirley’s passion for providing language access to the arts will be etched in the annals of history, her contributions to the interpreting community will forever be honored. *Thank you Gallaudet University for the biography*