The Queens of King: Broward
FORT LAUDERDALE — When Eula Gandy Johnson, a native of Statenville, Ga., arrived in Fort Lauderdale in 1935, she soon decided that the Jim Crow laws in place needed to come to an end. The civil rights activist became a powerful voice for the cause.
Known by many as the Rosa Parks of Broward County, Johnson made history on July 4, 1961, when she, along with Dr. Von Mizell and a group of black students from Dillard High School, became the first blacks to wade into the segregated waters of Fort Lauderdale beach.
“I wasn’t living (in Fort Lauderdale) when lots of things happened, but I was there during the time she was integrating the beach,” said Johnson’s daughter, Albertha Johnson, 87. A retired educator, Albertha Johnson moved to Jacksonville in 1946, but visited her mother often.
“She resented the essence of racism and wanted to do everything she possibly could to make change,” Albertha Johnson continued. “And that included blacks being able to go where they wanted and doing the things we needed to do. I mean Statenviille had been filled with prejudices and she knew it was wrong.”
George Burrows once described Johnson’s organizing of the wade-ins at the beach as “dangerous, but Eula was strong like that; unafraid. More than anything, she really wanted us to get away from being considered second-class citizens, and always assuming that whites were first.”
Burrows, 85, Fort Lauderdale’s first black licensed master electrician (1948) and president and CEO of Burrows Electric, recalled Johnson as being “an advocate for things we did not have, things we tried to get — sidewalks, street lights and voting rights. She really fought hard.”
There were a lot of people involved in the wade-ins, Gregory Johnson, Eula Johnson’s grandson who lives in Tallahassee, once said. “But I was really afraid for her. We had been getting threatening phone calls.”
The six-week series of wade-ins brought national headlines. The city of Fort Lauderdale later sued Johnson for being a public nuisance. A federal court ruled in her favor and against the city’s segregation policies.
As a well-respected entrepreneur, Johnson owned a small grocery store and two gas stations on Northwest Sixth Street, which is now Sistrunk Boulevard. One of the gas stations, located at 1100 Sistrunk Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale, shared the parcel of land where her house rested. There were five black-owned gas stations on Sixth Street at that time, an area then known as the Negro District.
Gregory described his grandmother as “barely educated, but nevertheless a great business woman.” After a visit to the welfare office, Johnson was even more determined to make her own way.
POOR TO ENTREPRENEUR
“The people there talked down to her so much that she walked out and never came back,” Gregory recalled. “She then took every job she could — cooking, sewing, domestic — until she became an entrepreneur. She had a plan.’’
But Johnson’s fight for civil rights, her aggressive ways, according to Gregory, were not well received by certain Fort Lauderdale whites who often telephoned death threats.
“We received them every night,” he said. “Once, we were attacked on Sunrise Boulevard because my skin is dark and my grandmother could pass for white. A group of whites asked her, ‘What are you doing with that little n- – – – – child?’ And when she replied, ‘That’s my son,’ we were beaten.”
Gregory said the callers knew where they lived and “could have bombed us at any time…They never did. She was protected, it was God’s will.”
Many blacks in the community feared for Johnson’s safety, he said, especially the men. On several occasions, members of the community begged her to “let it go,” and warned that her “boldness had angered whites, making things dangerous for her. They supported her, but were afraid for their own lives, the lives of their families; their jobs.’’
There were several attempts made by whites to buy Johnson off, Gregory said. “(My grandmother) was promised that she would be allowed to shop in certain places, eat in certain restaurants, have access to clubs, use the front doors at some establishments if she gave up fighting for the
n- – – – – – and quit the Civil Rights Movement.”
WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE
Johnson’s response, he said, was always the same: “I’ll come in the front door when I can come in with my people.’’ He added, “Eula Johnson was never a woman to compromise. For her, it was about the people and their quality of life.”
Throughout it all, Gregory said, Johnson never taught hate.
Johnson was also known for her strength and commitment to the black community as the first woman president of the Fort Lauderdale NAACP (1959–1967). Last year, the historic house where she lived was completely renovated and dedicated as the Fort Lauderdale/Broward Branch NAACP headquarters as well as a museum honoring her work. A historical marker was placed at A1A and Las Olas Boulevard, the location where Johnson and Mizell first led a small team of protestors onto whites-only beaches.
In 2001, the city of Fort Lauderdale renamed the length of Northwest 23rd Avenue between Northwest 19th Street and Sunrise Boulevard as Eula Johnson Avenue.
“Freedom is written in the hearts of black people,” Johnson said in a 1992 interview with The Miami Herald. “I had courage. But let's say this: When you are right and believe you are right, God gives you courage.” Johnson died in January 2001 at age 94.
Photo: Eula Gandy Johnson