Good memories living in Lansing: Lonnie Johnson, 3-years-old at 904 S. Sycamore St. The neighborhood no longer exists, however at the time it was considered the Westside. Johnson shown here about 1942, with his mother, Alice Johnson, born in 1918 in Lansing, MI. Courtesy photo
By Nadine Defensor
The city of Lansing is home to approximately 115,000 African-Americans. It’s also the home of a rich African-American culture, where family history can be traced all the way to the country’s birth, while also witnessing its momentous historical events.
Lonnie Johnson is an avid volunteer and still loves to give back to the community. Photo by Michael Jennings
Lonnie Johnson is a native Lansing resident since the late 1930’s and was fortunate to encounter a number of events when the country was going through a period of social and racial injustice. Born on November 13, 1939, in Chicago, Illinois, he moved to Lansing with his family when he was nine months old. Initially, his family lived with his grandparents on Maxine Ct., but eventually his parents bought a house close to his grandparents on Sycamore St. He described the neighborhood he lived in as very mixed culture with many African Americans, Arab descent and Caucasians living there too. “It was good community,” he stated that he enjoyed living during his younger years.
According to Johnson, Lansing didn’t shy away from the real problem that the nation was facing.
He attended Lincoln School, a predominately African-American school, during his early years of elementary education. He recalls one incident when he used to live on Sycamore St. and he wanted to play with a Caucasian friend, who lived down the block. After knocking on his friend’s door, the father answered the door and told Johnson that he couldn’t play with his son and shut the door in his face. Though he was still friends with the boy, they never played together afterschool again.
But after second grade, his family moved to Main St., which he described the community as being different. Though he never faced any adversity from his neighbors, they didn’t have the same exposure of living next to black families, compared to his years in Sycamore St neighborhood, where all kids, regardless of race, played together.
By the time he reached high school, Johnson’s interaction with the African American community had subsided. From being part of the majority of black students during his elementary education, he became part of the minority student population during his years at J.W. Sexton High School. He was part of the group of black students that only composed 30 percent of the attendees then.
“The closer you got to J.W.Sexton, the whiter it was. Not at a lot of African Americans in the area, between 1954 and 1957”, he said. Johnson stated that initially, there were 17 African Americans students who were in his class at Sexton, but by graduation, there were only 9 of them left, 3 boys and 6 girls.
“Some kids just dropped out, some girls were pregnant,” Johnson reasoned for the low number of Black students graduating in his class. What pushed him to achieve a high school diploma was his parents’ insistence for him to get an education. “My parents said you need to go to college, so I kind of accepted it as an article of fate.”
He attended Michigan State University (MSU) and graduated with a degree in political science in fall in 1963. Though he had an interest of going into Foreign Service, he had gotten married for the first time and couldn’t pursue further going to an out of state college to obtain a degree in diplomacy.
1967 was a busy year. Johnson went to MSU Graduate School for a social work degree, focusing in community organization. That same year, he landed his first job as a recruiter for the Michigan Police Recruitment Project. He was assigned to recruit to 1,000 minority applicants for various law enforcement agencies.
However, being a police officer wasn’t the best choice at the time as he explained it was the same year that the Detroit Riot occurred. It was one the deadliest and most destructive riots in United States history, surpassing the violence in Detroit’s 1943 race riot. Fortunately, luck was on Johnson’s side that day as he recalled stopping by a gas station and being warned by a gas station owner that the riot had occurred in the city that he was suppose to be on his way to. After the riot, he continued recruiting minorities for various police departments, but a lot of the potential recruitees didn’t really wanted his help.
The Detroit Riot impacted the African American community in a number of ways. First, it prevented some minorities from entering the police force and secondly, it greatly polarized the views of whites and blacks on the issue of segregation even further. While whites leaned on supporting separation, African Americans heavily increased their fight for equality and racial integration.
The civil rights movement had reached its peak on a national level, by the following year. With Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. espousing “integrated power” and championing equality for all, many African Americans, across the country, fought to protect their lands, culture, freedom and rights.
Johnson participated in this national movement by marshaling local marches in Lansing while working for anti-poverty programs as well. He also helped coordinate transportation for people to go down to Washington D.C., where Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream speech” that year. He said he never had the chance to hear Dr. King’s speech since he “was too busy trying to get people squared away.” However, he did have a chance to hear Dr. King preach a few years back when he visited his girlfriend at the time for cotillion ball in Montgomery, Alabama. King, then, was only a small country preacher and his girlfriend attended the church that Dr. King would give sermons at Sunday services. Johnson remembered King giving a good sermon that day and was introduced to him after his service and shook his hand.
One racial incident that really stuck to Johnson was the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till was an African-American 14-year-old boy, who was murdered from Mississippi after he reported flirting with a white woman. He was visiting relatives in Mississippi that summer when he made a smart remark to a storeowner, who was a married, white female. The storeowner’s husband found out and 2 members of the Ku Klux Klan beat him to death, tied a big mill fan to the body and threw it in the river. Johnson said that this occurrence was a real point of arousal for African Americans in the country.
“It affected me because we were roughly the same age and I was enraged about what happened to him. I was still in school and there was no national movement that I could participate in and civil rights movement was beginning to pick up. I watched what was going on across the country with a lot of interest,” he explains.
Despite leading a colorful life journey, Johnson now lives a quiet life with his second wife, Glendora, and has been married to her for 36 years. He also has 6 children and 8 grandchildren with 1 on the way.
Although the Greater Lansing has been his home for all his life, his family roots from Nova Scotia and Arkansas is what made him the man he is, today. Johnson explains that his mother’s family came from Canada in 1880’s and his grandfather came from Nova Scotia and became U.S. naturalized citizens in 1883. His maternal great-great grandfather was captured by a Dutch slave ship and was a free slave in Virginia in 1623. He also had relatives that fought during The Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
On his father side, his grandmother were slaves in Arkansas and at some point, they were sold to Mr. Dabny in Tennessee. Though his family’s original name was Anderson, they changed it to Dabny after being taken under the care of their new owner. Johnson said that he doesn’t know a lot of information about his paternal grandfather’s side as they were orphans but all he knows is that his grandfather’s name was Maynard Johnson, thus becoming a Johnson himself. Finally, Johnson said that he doesn’t remember how he parents met. He shares that his father came to Lansing between 1934 and 1935 since he had relatives that moved to Lansing from Tennessee and along the way, his father met his mother and the rest was history.
Johnson’s Mother's side: Great Aunt Isabell Doane (married a Bell and lived in Battle Creek). Great Grandmother, Magdelina "Delany or Delana" Doane (maiden name James) born in Nova Scotia Canada in 1844. Immigrated to Lansing in 1880. (photo of mother and daughter). Johnson said that there were a number of Negros who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War and they were granted freedom but they had to leave the States for safety reasons. A lot of colonials decided to leave New York and slaves may have been part of the family property and went to Nova Scotia with them. Lonnie is unsure how his family originally got to Canada. Both are speculations on his part but he understands that those were two events that involved migration for Negros to Canada. Courtesy photo
Johnson said that he decided to participate on this Legacies project as it is extremely important to him and for the African American youth "need to know who they are and whose they are". He explains that being African American, he has a long family history, primarily here in Lansing. He would like for Lansing residents to learn more about the early black families, as he is interested in learning about theirs.
This is a series of several stories about the lives of African Americans who have lived in the Greater Lansing Area and have seen its many changes. If you know someone you believe should be featured, please contact us at email@example.com. Please put “The Legacy Project” in the subject line.
This was printed in the June 1, 2012 - June 16, 2012 Edition