What Mary and Jim Johnson taught me about racial (in)equality

What Mary and Jim Johnson taught me about racial (in)equality
Mary and James (Jim) Johnson in their garden.

Mary Johnson was like a mother to me.  She took care of my grandmother before she passed away so I never knew a time without her until the day she passed away at age 93.   She was born in Cotton Plant, Mississippi, on September 30, 1903.  It wasn't an easy time or place to grow up as an African American.  She made her way north around 1943 and, if she hadn't, my life would've been very different. 

With Mary and JimShe and her husband James (Jim) were well known fixtures in the little railroad town where I grew up, Dupo, Illinois.  The Johnsons lived across the tracks in East Carondelet, a town of about 600.  I remember being told that blacks weren't allowed to live in the city proper.  Those were the times back then but Mary and Jim lived their lives with dignity despite the injustices and, by example, taught me a lot about the right way to live, too.  It was the 50's and racial inequality was rampant especially in small town USA.  And as much as I love my little town now, it wasn't such a kind and gentle place back then. 

Mary and Jim were such hard workers, they had to be to survive. I watched Jim as he toiled on the railroad by day and picked up trash at night.  Besides raising me, Mary also worked as a cook at the YMCA.  Together, they had a garden that fed a lot of their friends and neighbors.  They were always quick and happy to share whatever they had.  Jim also raised hogs on pens along the banks of the Mississippi.  I'll never forget this story he told me.  He sold the pigs in St. Louis at the stockyards but he knew, as a black man, that he wouldn't get equal pay for his loads.  So he found a white wino, gave him a bottle and, voila, Jim became the hired hand and the wino driving the truck was the "boss" therefore insuring a bigger paycheck. 

Mary JohnsonI learned a lot of life's lessons from the Johnsons.  They were tough, Jim always had a gun in the house and needed one.  Crime seemed to be as bad then as it is now.  Once, their house was spray painted with the words "helter skelter" after the horrible Manson murders were committed and several crosses were burned on lawns.  Jim was featured in a full page newspaper article in the Metro-East Journal.  The opening paragraph read, "A black in a small, predominantly white town where crosses were burned might be expected to become angry."  He wasn't.  "We all know each other here, " Jim said.  "There's been some Negroes living here a long time and there's been no racial trouble."  He went on to say, "Some of the people are raising up some real little monsters but I think we can handle them.  You got to get right on top of things when they do something.  A lot of times then you can cool it off and them too before they get smarter and bigger. You can't let them walk all over you.  If you just let things run like they want, then you get real trouble."   Even though they had no children of their own, they raised a whole town and came to teach so many of these errant kids right from wrong. 

 Jim was a deacon of the Flat Creek Baptist Church and Mary was a Mother of the church.  I never missed a Sunday there when I was home, oftentimes being the only white face in the entire congregation.  Despite all of their hardships, I never heard them say an unkind word about another human being even though they had so many reasons to do otherwise.  Their hard fought lives taught me so much about who I wanted to be.

With Mary at her 90th birthday partyI miss them everyday but am eternally grateful for the life lessons they taught me about survival, forgiveness and kindness.  I wish you could've known them.  We need their words of wisdom now more than ever. 

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