George native Johnny Johnsonarrived in Erie in the early 1970s, a product of the recruitment effort of the Erie School District to bring young African American teachers to Erie in the wake of the late-60s period of social unrest. Soon after his arrival, Mr. Johnson was mentored by Ada Louise Lawrence, a remarkable educator he immediately came to hold in the highest esteem. Johnson taught physical education and coached basketball, but thanks to Ms. Lawrence his true passion soon became African American history—preserving this “treasure,” as he called it in 2019, and ensuring its rightful place in the center of both Erie and the nation.
Part of that dedication to history was clearly informed by his experience growing up in the segregated South, where he had several close encounters with the violent terror of white supremacy. In one episode, a groundless insinuation from a state policeman suspecting he and a friend of operating a vehicle with an illegal muffler (their actual offense was driving while black). The stop came accompanied by racist epithets: “Is this your car, boy?” and “I oughta shoot you, nigguh.” As it turned out, though conditions in Erie were far different, racism took different forms in the north. There were no other African American teachers at Strong Vincent when he arrived and he found the racial environment most unwelcoming. An informal group known as the “Society for the Prevention of Negroes Getting Everything” (SPONGE) seemed to operate with impunity at the school. “Jim Crow got on the same bus you got on,” as Mr. Johnson put it.
As Mr. Johnson and Ms. Lawrence became life-long friends, he engaged in a number of efforts to ensure that “their [that is to say, our collective African American forebears] stories be told.” He immersed himself in the history of the Lawrence family, researching Earl Lawrence in particular and giving countless presentations in schools and throughout the community on the legacy of the Lawrence family. He also assisted the production of museum exhibits, supported research for Journey from Jerusalem, and collaborated with Charles Kennedy, Cheryl Rush Dix, and others in forming the Harry T. Burleigh Society. Upon Ada’s passing, Mr. Johnson turned to the protection of the Lawrence archives, and eventually, leading the effort to ensure this project—A Shared Heritage—came to pass.