How Virginia State cheer became “Woo Woos” and changed HBCU cheerleading

Dr. Paulette Walker-Johnson was thrust into the position of cheerleading coach at Virginia State. VSU, the CIAA and HBCU cheerleading would never be the same.

Dr. Paulette Walker-Johnson didn’t walk onto the campus of what is now Virginia State University with the notion she would push stomp-and-shake to the forefront of HBCU cheerleading and beyond.

She arrived at the Ettrick, VA campus in 1974 fresh out of Morgan State College she arrived to take a job at VSC — and cheerleading wasn’t in the job description.

“Petersburg is my home, so I returned home. And one of the first things they said when you come back —  I was a physical education teacher — you’ve got to take the cheerleaders.” I didn’t have any experience in coaching, but I took the assignment because I was grateful to have that opportunity and the rest is history.”

It wasn’t that she lacked experience.

“I became a cheerleader at Peabody High School, which is an all-black high school way back during the Jim Crow Era,” said Johnson, with a still magnetic grin. “I was a cheerleader there. I was actually a stunt girl. I then graduated to being a cheerleader, never tried out. And that was my history. I went to Morgan, tried out for cheerleading there, and was a varsity cheerleader for four years. 

HBCU cheer, Paulette Walker-Johnson
Dr. Paulette Walker-Johnson, second from left, as a Morgan State College cheerleader.

When her time at Morgan State was up, her father helped her get a job at VSC. While she wasn’t prepared for the duty, she took the challenge head on. 

“I wanted to do well because Petersburg is my home and Virginia State was nice enough to hire me,” Dr. Johnson said. “And I don’t know, it just it just happened, though.”

When she took over the program, there wasn’t much distinguishing about the Virginia State cheerleaders. But that was about to change. 

“We did what we could do. We made it do what it can do and the style — the stop and shake style —  sort of evolved. And I would say it evolved because I didn’t have a lot of gymnasts. Although I taught gymnastics, I didn’t want to put my girls at risk. So we stayed on the floor and built all the excitement. We could do there. So it was an energetic kind of… fast-paced movement and people seemed to like it. And the more they cheered for us, the more we innovated and created.”

And the rest is HBCU cheerleading history.

Virginia State, HBCU Cheer

Creating The Woo Woos

Dr. Johnson said she initially reworked cheers from her Morgan State days and integrated those to create something new.

“You had to have the certain look, a certain attitude and a certain — I don’t know —  confidence in what you did and then begin to notice immediately. But after about a year or so, the young ladies that I selected, they brought into the program and the audience started to.”

After a while, Virginia State cheerleaders became so popular that they even earned a nickname that sticks to this day. They became known as “The Woo Woos” within the HBCU cheer circles.

HBCU Cheerleading, including stomp-and-shake, requires physical conditioning.

“We were at a banquet once and a guy says ‘that’s that Woo Woo Lady. He said ‘I know why they call you the Woo Woos. And I said, Why, sir? And he said, Because when y’all get out there, people say, Woo Woo. And I said, Yeah, that’s it, I’ll accept that,” Johnson said with a smile. “But really it’s a nickname. And of course, you know that spread throughout the conference where everybody has a nickname and we’re happy to be known as Woo Woos.”

Lizz Robbins was a Woo Woo from 1993 through 1997. She fondly remembers cheering for Dr. Johnson and she says it has impacted her to this day. 

Lizz Robbins, Virginia State, HBCU Cheer
Lizz Robbins still treasures her time as a Woo Woo under Paulette Walker-Johnson at Virginia State.

“Cheering for Dr. Johnson was amazing, she not only guided us as a coach in cheerleading, she also guided us as a coach in life. Even though we were a squad, she treated each of us a individuals and helped us grow using our individual strengths,” Robbins wrote.

“A couple of things that I can point out that she helped me discover and improve on is my confidence and discipline. Confidence in myself and the decisions I made while making sure I gave careful thought in my decisions, and discipline with myself, she taught me that you do need to have self-discipline in your life, it will carry you far. I’ve used and continued to use the valuable lessons she’s taught me back then and now, and she let me know I could move my hips just a tad bit more (lol). I’m forever grateful to have been a Woo Woo. Once a Woo Woo always a Woo Woo.”

Dr. Paulette Johnson, Woo Woos, HBCU Cheer

Stomp-and-shake, the Woo Woos and HBCU cheerleading influence

From the beginning of her career, Dr. Johnson was an innovator — even if it wasn’t by choice. 

“I never asked to be the cheer coach. They just told me that I was going to be. So I accepted that responsibility and then it became absolute fun,” she said.

The position of ‘cheer coach’ wasn’t nearly as defined as it is now — if it even existed at all back then.

“A lot of the CIAA schools did not have a coach,” Dr. Johnson remembered. “They had what would be an advisor. Somebody just took the girls to the game. But I was a true coach working out and every part physical, mental, spiritual aspects of it. And so that pushed everybody to start to put some money into their programs.”

Beyond her impact on the cheer program, Dr. Walker made an impact at Virginia State athletics and beyond.

Dr. Johnson is noted as the first female athletic director in VSU history who coached the VSU softball team to win its first CIAA Softball Championship. She was the first president and founder of the CIAA Cheerleader Coaches Association. She is a 2003 inductee of the VSU Wall of Fame, and 2011 inductee into the CIAA John B. McLendon Hall of Fame.

Johnson made sure to give flowers to other HBCU cheerleading programs she has seen evolve and push things forward.

“We started to get creative with the uniforms created, with the movement, and we didn’t imitate anything. If we saw it before, we wouldn’t do it. So that was the issue. And then it caught on and wonderful. It did, because they were doing great things down in Winston-Salem and up at Virginia Union and of course (NC) Central and just grew from there. And so I am happy to say that I came in and with the Spirit and with a lot of prayer, God came with me and we created what is now the HBCU kind of style.

Now, that style has spread beyond Virginia State, beyond the CIAA and beyond HBCU cheerleading thanks to the internet, specifically social media and Youtube. While she’s been officially retired as the Woo Woos Head coach since 2010, Dr. Paulette Walker-Johnson remains entrenched in the culture which she had a major hand in creating. 

“Well, our style is no longer necessarily unique now. And I go on YouTube also, and I can see cheers that I know the day that it originated, who made up that cheer and I see it all over the country. And that’s a wonderful thing. That is a compliment to, again, what we started. And I’m not going to say it wasn’t going on other places, but I had not seen it before and we just did what we did and worked with what we had.”

How Virginia State cheer became “Woo Woos” and changed HBCU cheerleading
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