In all things important, John D. Johnson excelled. He made his mark in the law, he made his mark as a civil rights activist and he made his mark as a husband, remaining married to his wife for 55 years until she died in 1998.
His remarkable life came to an end on Tuesday, when Johnson died at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. He was 98.
But excellence was expected of Johnson, who was born to one of the most important pioneer black families in Miami.
He was the youngest of seven children of Bahamian immigrants Samuel D. and Ida Ellen Roberts Johnson. The family settled in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood, then called Colored Town, in 1903, and the couple became the first black family in South Florida to have all seven children complete college and return to Miami as professionals.
Johnson graduated from Miami’s Booker T. Washington High School, class of 1931, and earned a Bachelor of Arts from West Virginia State College, where he was president of the Historical Society and a member of the newspaper staff and varsity debate team. He later earned a law degree from Howard University, where he was the chief justice of Sigma Delta Tau Legal Fraternity.
Johnson began working at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., before returning to Miami in 1947 with his bride and college sweetheart, Johnalie Elizabeth Dennis Johnson, of Brunswick, Ga.. He passed the Florida Bar that same year.
Johnson’s first law office was located in his eldest brother’s X-Ray Clinic at 171 NW 11th St., where he started an extraordinary legal career that spanned close to a half-century, until he retired in 1991.
During that time, he was appointed the City of Miami’s second black municipal judge, serving from 1955 to 1959, becoming Florida’s only fourth black judge. He tried around 50,000 before his term ended.
Johnson also joined with other legal notables such as Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become a Supreme Court justice, G.E. Graves and Frank Reeves to knock down racial and social barriers in Miami.
They won cases that led to racial integration in places such as the Orange Bowl Stadium and the city-owned Miami Springs Golf Club.
Even after receiving threats against his life, Johnson and his colleagues defended community figures such as Father Theodore Gibson and the Rev. Edward T. Graham from unjust incarceration by the Charlie Johns Legislative Committee that also tried to outlaw the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Florida.
Johnson also helped to develop and establish programs to benefit the poor, such as Miami-Dade County’s Food Stamp Program, The Family Health Clinic and the Model Cities Legal Services Program. He won cases to keep liquor stores out of Brownsville and helped defeat the county's Housing Authority’s plan to put low-cost housing developments next to single-family homes in black areas.
A charter member of the Church of the Open Door in Liberty City, Johnson served as a trustee for many years. He was also a pioneer member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
A sports fan, he provided transportation for baseball great Satchel Paige five or six times from Overtown's Sir John Hotel to the then segregated Miami Stadium for baseball practice. He served on the Miami committee formed to nominate Paige to the national Baseball Hall of Fame.
Johnson’s other siblings also went on to professional careers. A family of teachers, all of his siblings began their careers in the Miami-Dade County school system. His late brother Dr. S. H. Johnson became South Florida's first black radiologist. Another brother, Dr. James Kenneth Johnson is an internist. The late Frederick Johnson was a teacher and accountant. His three sisters, all of them teachers, are deceased: Elaine Adderly, Roberta Thompson and Dorothy J. McKellar.
Johnson is the uncle of retired Miami-Dade County Judge A. Leo Adderly and historian Dorothy Ellen Jenkins Fields, who founded the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Inc.
Funeral arrangements are pending.