Caleb Johnson of Germantown Academy continues legacy of great black pole vaulters

Joseph Johnson (right) is believed to be the city’s first black pole vaulting champion. Decades after he competed at Franklin Field, his grandson Caleb (left) is carrying on the family legacy.

When Germantown High School senior Joseph Johnson peered down the pole-vault runway at Franklin Field in 1954, he had no idea where the path would take him.

Back then, Johnson, who might have been the first black pole vaulter to win the city championship, had more immediate concerns.

“No, no,” the 81-year-old says with a laugh. “In my head was, ‘Get over this bar without breaking your neck.’ ”

Nearly 64 years later, Johnson watched nine days ago at Franklin Field as his grandson, Caleb, a junior at Germantown Academy, continued the journey by taking third place in the pole vault at the Penn Relays. The Johnson family — with an Olympian as a surrogate — shared a moment of black excellence that spanned three generations of pole vaulters.

Camera icon Courtesy / Johnson family
Joseph Johnson, Caleb’s grandfather, was a champion pole vaulter at Germantown High. In the 1954 city championships at Franklin Field he cleared 10 feet, 9 inches, landing in a pit of sand and sawdust.

“It was amazing,” Johnson said last week as he stood with Caleb next to Germantown Academy’s pole-vault landing area. “I looked out there and said, ‘Look how far he’s come in such a short time.’ The big thing was that the height he started at was where I ended up.”

Caleb, who grew up a gymnast like his grandfather, didn’t begin the pole vault until ninth grade when he found his coach, Lawrence “LoJo” Johnson (no relation). Lawrence Johnson is the first black pole vaulter to earn a medal at the Olympics, winning silver in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.

Back in 1954, Johnson just hoped his vault would land him in the sand- and sawdust-filled pit.

His flight could end abruptly and painfully if the bamboo pole he used to fling himself 10 feet, 9 inches over the bar snapped, as it once did in a meet at Olney.

Projecting his legacy, however, wasn’t part of his thought process.

Vaulting “was a cool thing, but I didn’t really take it all in like that,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really know the value of that outside of high school.”

It’s difficult to determine whether Johnson was the first black athlete to win the city championship, even with an assist from the historical archive

At the time, other black athletes competed but the sport was dominated by white athletes, Johnson said. Newspaper articles did not always specify a competitor’s event.

Johnson’s team at Germantown, which closed in 2013, was mostly white.

Johnson grew up in the Richard Allen projects and said he never felt any racial animus from his teammates, who believed then and still do that he is the pioneering black champion.

“I guess that means we really became a true team,” Johnson said.

Camera icon Photo courtesy of the Johnson family
Germantown High’s 1954 championship pole-vault team: Joseph Johnson (left), Walter Dodge, Alex Russell, Lee Cunningham and Steward Culbreth.

A friend, Ronald Johnson (no relation), introduced him to the sport when he was a freshman at Ben Franklin. Johnson continued jumping at West Philadelphia before finishing at Germantown.

He then earned a track scholarship to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, after Elmwood Johnston, a well-known Philadelphia track athlete, walked down the block wearing his maroon Marauders track sweat suit.

Johnson’s plan had been to follow his father, Joseph Sr., into the Army. Instead, Elmwood helped him get a scholarship. Johnson, in turn, helped the Marauders win a conference championship as a freshman.

Now, his grandson, who cleared a school-record 15 feet, 9 inches at the Penn Relays, has a few colleges interested in his services.

“It’s so exciting to think how it’s transitioned onto me,” Caleb said. “I’m just glad he was there to see me do it. … It’s exciting, because I’m not just doing it for me. I’m doing it for someone else, and that really helps.”

Caleb’s grandfather has been his biggest supporter and the pair, who also share a love of music, swap text messages after competitions.

“Think free,” Johnson advises about picking a college.

Caleb Johnson isn’t ready to divulge which schools have expressed interest, but the Olympian in his corner expects continued success at the next level.

Camera icon Aaron Carter / Staff
Lawrence Johnson, Caleb’s coach (no relation) won an Olympic medal in teh event.

“What I see from him surpasses what I did at his age,” said Lawrence Johnson, who coaches Caleb and runs the LoJo Vault Assault training organization with his wife, Christina. “I’m tremendously excited by his potential.”

That’s high praise from the winner of two high school national championships; seven Southeastern Conference championships and four NCAA championships while at the University of Tennessee; seven professional championships; a world championship; and that silver medal.

When Caleb’s grandfather was a scholarship athlete, it was a big deal getting two juices in the lunch line at Central State.

After graduation, he enlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, and served six years. He went on to teach in the Philadelphia School District for 36 years. Counting Caleb, he has 25 grandchildren.

“I’ve had a blessed life,” Joseph Johnson said.

The sport has certainly evolved. The equipment has changed. The facilities have improved, and the rewards are much greater. But one thing — Caleb’s favorite aspect of the sport — has remained the same for generations.

“You can’t just sit around idly and be good at it,” Caleb said. “You have to put the work in.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Caleb Johnson set a school record at this years’ Penn Relays.