Baumgartner Vaughan: Former mayor turned on the light

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 08:47 PM

In 1930s small town Alabama, Horace Johnson’s parents lit their back yard with electric lights – something new back then -- so all the African-American kids had somewhere to play. I told you about Johnson’s background last week, and today I’ll share where that foundation led – to the mayor’s office in Hillsborough.

When Johnson was a little boy, his grandmother told him how prayer helped her survive slavery.

In the mid-1960s, his two sons were among the first to integrate an elementary school in Hillsborough. Soon after they started, one of them came home from school and said the teacher had asked him, “Do you want to be called Nigra?”

“My name is Horace Herbert Johnson Jr., ma’am. Please call me that,” he said.

The Johnson boys had a hard time, Horace Johnson Sr. said, and would come home upset about the white kids getting things they didn’t. This was a few years before the wave of other black kids integrated schools, he said.

“I wanted them to get a quality education, be well-rounded. When you get out in life, it’s not going to be only black kids. I told them it wasn’t going to be easy,” Johnson said.

He bought his sons a set of encyclopedias, and expected them to be doing homework and reading, not watching television. He’d check to see if the television set was warm.

“I was tough. I wanted to pal around with them, but I wanted to keep them focused,” he said.

When he was a student at then-N.C. Central College, he worked during the summer at American Tobacco, lifting tobacco. One day he wore his NCC T-shirt around black co-workers who did not go to college. A white boss soon gave him a pink slip, he said.

Johnson said he learned to mask his feelings of anger or fear and keep them internally.

“If people said something that made me tremble, I’d pray. If someone said something that made me angry, I’d smile. …Whatever problem they have, that’s theirs, not mine. I know who I am.”

In 1969, Johnson and the Orange County Voters League led a campaign of selective buying, also known as a boycott, against some Hillsborough stores. The league’s list of demands included issues like equitable treatment between whites and African-Americans in education, housing, employment and the law. This newspaper quoted then Mayor Fred Cates as saying that he would not make “concessions to black militants.”

Johnson still has a bright orange boycott bumper sticker. His activities gathered attention from white groups like the Citizens Council, who showed up with guns one day when high school students were out marching in protest, Johnson said. He told the students to go inside his home, and he went out alone. Black men came to support him, also armed, he said, but he told them he was fine. Nobody got shot.

“I didn’t get mad. I didn’t get even. I got ready. I got people ready to vote,” Johnson said. He was not worried about his safety, he said, because he had faith. “I hoped the Lord would accept me for what I was trying to do, to better mankind.”

Johnson was elected to Hillsborough Town Council in 1977, lost a term in the 1980s and then won the next round before going on to narrowly beat his old opponent Cates for mayor in 1989. Johnson was mayor until 2001.

When Johnson was elected Hillsborough’s first African-American mayor, he went to New Jersey to visit his mother and thanked her for teaching him, as a kid, the right thing to do. She died a month later. Johnson’s 104-year-old aunt came to his swearing-in.

The moral compass his family raised him with stayed in him, Johnson said. “Always do right. Never hurt anybody. Pray. Work hard,” he said.

In retirement, Johnson spends a lot of time reading nonfiction. He roots for N.C. Central University and the Durham Bulls. You’ll see him every summer when the Bulls honor former Negro League players, because Johnson played for the Monarchs.

So, back to that back yard, the one where his parents invited kids to play. Johnson’s Hillsborough backyard was a place for local kids, too. It drew a lot of young basketball players who went on to successful careers. Giving others a place to thrive makes a real difference in our communities. Keeping the lights on for others lifts us all.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563. On Twitter: @dawnbvaughan.