Riley "Doc" Johns (1895–1950)
Riley “Doc” Johns was an African-American athletic trainer at Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central High) from 1930 to 1950. He was also the groundskeeper and equipment manager for the school’s sports teams until his death seven years before the Central High Crisis of 1957.
Riley Johns was born on September 14, 1895, in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) to Joseph Johns and Nettie Flynn Johns. He was the youngest of three sons that included Clarence (born 1891) and Percy Legette Johns (born 1892). His parents had lived in several northwestern Arkansas counties before settling in Fort Smith.
During World War I, he was drafted into the military from Fort Smith and entered service on August 1, 1918. At the time of his draft, he was working as a furniture stainer at Ward Furniture Company. He served four months as a mechanic with Company A, Sixty-Fifth Pioneer Infantry and was discharged on December 15, 1918.
Johns moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1928 to work as groundskeeper for Kavanaugh Field and trainer for the Little Rock Baseball Club, a minor league team. However, he likely maintained a residence in Muldrow, Oklahoma (twelve miles from Fort Smith), until after 1930. He had worked for minor league baseball clubs in Fort Smith and Oklahoma.
Johns briefly worked for a minor league team in Montreal, Canada, as park caretaker and trainer, but he soon returned to Arkansas. He became the full-time groundskeeper for the Little Rock School Athletic Association in 1930–1931, after the Little Rock School Board purchased Kavanaugh Field. Earl F. Quigley, legendary athletic coach at Little Rock High, is credited for his hiring. In a limited capacity, he assisted in coaching football, basketball, and track. Nicknamed “Doc,” Johns was considered the best trainer in the South and had turned down better opportunities with large universities. His services were sought after by other teams playing in Little Rock, including the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. He also volunteered at other sports venues, such as boxing and wrestling facilities.
Johns is shown in official Tiger sports team photographs and in yearbooks from the 1930s through the 1940s. He traveled with the team to out-of-town games but apparently did not have the same hotel privileges, as it was reported that “he would come to the hotel to tape the boys.” Another source stated that Johns often endured verbal insults while traveling away from Little Rock with the team. Even though he had unprecedented status in his field and was showered with adoration from the students, escaping the color barrier was impossible. Johns would attempt to excuse himself from athletic banquet events, but well-meaning friends would encourage his attendance, which meant a separate table had to be set up and decorated especially for him.
When Johns moved to Little Rock in 1928, he was accompanied by his first wife, Ella, who worked as a domestic. They were still listed together in the 1940 census, but by the spring of the next year, he had married Hazel Robinson Cotton; both were residents of Little Rock but married in Lonoke County. He and Hazel lived in an apartment above Tiger Stadium (now Quigley), although Hazel maintained a family home on Chester Street. The couple had no children. Hazel, a college graduate, worked as a secretary and stenographer.
When students learned Johns was ill, school officials proclaimed December 14, 1949, as “Riley Johns Day” with an assembly basketball game staged between school alumni and the Tiger varsity basketball team. Johns finally got a chance to coach a team officially, with his alumni winning over varsity. At half-time, he was presented with a collection of money raised by students and staff to defray his medical expenses.
Johns died on October 22, 1950; his body lay in repose at Tiger Stadium’s east lobby so people could pay their respects. He is buried at Little Rock National Cemetery. Thirty-eight years after his death, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame posthumously awarded him “Meritorious Service” at its 1988 installation banquet.
For additional information:
Bailey, Jim. “Riley Johns: All Things to All Students.” Arkansas Gazette, February 4, 1988, p. 1D.
Cate, George M. The Good Ground of Central High: Little Rock Central High School and Legendary Coach Wilson Matthews. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2008.
Cooper, Quentin. “Riley Johns Was Power Drive Behind Tigers for 25 Years.” Tiger newspaper, (Little Rock High School), November 2, 1950, pp. 1, 8.
Quigley, E. F. “Little Rock High School’s Riley Known and Loved by Hundreds of Athletes.” Arkansas Gazette, October 23, 1950, p. 13.
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
Last Updated: 09/01/2020