Ethel Johnson, owner of ‘The Weekly Challenger’ dies

Ethel L. Johnson, owner of ‘The Weekly Challenger,’ fell asleep in death on May 26.


ST. PETERSBURG – Ethel L. Johnson — wife, mother, entrepreneur and woman of God — quietly took her leave on May 26. She was 92.

Born May 12, 1931, in Soperton, Ga., Mrs. Ethel was the oldest of 13 children. Her parents — Green T. Burnett, Jr. and Ollie Rea Wright — were tenant farmers, and she spent her childhood picking cotton, tending livestock and growing a variety of vegetables and tobacco.

She preferred working out in the fields with her father and brothers to caring for her siblings, cooking, and cleaning with her mother. Years later, she admitted she never learned to wring a chicken’s neck or milk a cow, claiming the cow would only let her mother milk her.  

“The cow we had, she wouldn’t let nobody but mama near her,” Mrs. Ethel said in a 2018 interview. “Other than that, she would kick your butt away from her.”

Catherine Cardwell, former dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, presented Ethel and Lyn Johnson with a plaque commemorating the start of ‘The Challenger’s’ digital archives at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg in 2016.

Ethel attended an elementary Rosenwald School ‎near the family’s farm. The Rosenwald School project was a partnership between philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and African-American leader and philanthropist Booker T. Washington to build schools all over the South since Black children were sent to woefully underfunded schools.

The project led to the construction of close to 5,000 schools throughout the South, with Black communities raising close to $5 million to help with construction costs. Unfortunately, the elementary school was burned down under suspicious circumstances.

“And I still have questions about how that thing burned down,” she said. “They’re talking about maybe rats struck some matches.”

Ethel Johnson presented the Tyrone Johnson Scholarship Award at Perkins Elementary in 2003. Tyrone Johnson, her stepson, was a prolific musician and local celebrity.

Burning Black schools and churches was the norm in the Jim Crow South. The school was rebuilt, and fortunately, there was little interruption to the children’s education. The high school she attended, farther away from the farm, was also a Rosenwald School.

After graduating high school and working for a while, she headed to Harbison Agricultural College in Irmo, S.C. Before graduating in 1953, she got a chance to meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at her school during a week-long church revival.

“He told me, ‘You’re young, so keep focused on your goals, and it will come together.’”

After junior college, she headed to Savannah State University but could only attend summer courses because the money had run out. Not wanting to work on the farm, she took any job until she had a chance to move to St. Petersburg with a cousin.

Former Senator Charlie Crist with Ethel Johnson

Mrs. Ethel was determined to leave Georgia and resolved only to visit once or twice a decade. She once said had she known a bomb could be built out of fertilizer, she would have blown up all the segregation and racism in her hometown.

Although she did not stay in St. Pete for too long, she did meet Evie Johnson, a dedicated servant of Jehovah God. Mrs. Ethel studied the Bible with Mrs. Johnson until she moved to Miami for work. There she ran into Mrs. Johnson’s son, Cleveland. They eventually got engaged and married in 1959. The couple moved to St. Petersburg from Miami in 1961 and started a family.

Ethel Johnson and Carolyn Hardwick at ‘The Weekly Challenger’s’ 50th-anniversary celebration in 2017.

While helping her husband with his fledging news outlet, The Weekly Challenger, she raised three children and worked various jobs in retail, banking, and the medical field. Ethel eventually retired as a medical assistant for Dr. Keith Brady, M.D., in 2000.

Before she could enjoy not punching a time clock, her husband died in 2001, and she took over the reins as The Challenger‘s publisher at age 70. Under her leadership, the paper was able to stave off the Great Recession when many other newspapers were closing their doors. During her tenure as publisher, she won numerous awards and recognitions and gracefully stepped out of the game in 2012 when her daughter, Lyn Johnson, became the publisher.

Ethel Johnson, her sister Hattie Burnett and Cleveland Johnson at a ‘Weekly Challenger’ function in the late 1970s.

She dedicated her life to Jehovah God in 1968. Mrs. Ethel would have celebrated 55 years as a baptized Jehovah’s Witness this July. She rubbed elbows with governors, senators, mayors and other high-ranking officials, but she was most proud of spending more than half of her life as a zealous and faithful servant of God. 

Mrs. Ethel felt as did the apostle Paul, who stayed the course many times in illness, in need, in favorable and unfavorable seasons. She found time to help others and to study the Bible with anyone who would listen.

Even in the hospital, she shared scriptures with the doctors and other staff. She had complete faith and understanding of the resurrection hope found in John 5:28, 29.

Ethel Johnson was the oldest of 13 children. Last November, the surviving siblings gathered for a family reunion. Standing: Freddie, Green and Wayne Burnett; seated: Hattie and Mary Burnett, Ethel Johnson and Rae Helen Jones.

Ethel Johnson is survived by her son Cyrille Johnson, daughters Wanda Johnson and Lyn Johnson (Matthew Freeman), and granddaughter Keirsten Johnson (Greg LaCompte), all of St. Petersburg. Sisters: Hattie Burnett, Mary Burnett, and Rae Helen Jones; brothers: Green Burnett, III, Freddie Burnett (Stella), and Wayne Burnett, all of Georgia.

She leaves behind many nieces, nephews, cousins and innumerable friends to cherish her memory.

A private service will be held later this month.

Photo Gallery

Son-in-law Matthew Freeman kissing Ethel Johnson
Sister act: Hattie Burnett, Ethel Johnson, Mary Burnett and Rae Hellen Jones
Senator Darryl Rouson with the Johnson Family at ‘The Weekly Challenger’s’ digital open house at the University of South Florida in 2016.
Ethel Johnson with her mother, Ollie Burnett.
Ethel Johnson with her nephew Joseph Burnett in the 1980s.
Family portrait: Wanda, Cyrille, Lyn and Ethel Johnson
Family portrait: Wanda, Cyrille, Lyn and Ethel Johnson
The Johnson family
Ethel and Cleveland Johnson in 1960.
Ethel’s sister Barbara Burnett and cousin Florence Springs and Ethel Johnson in the early 1960s.
Ethel Johnson with her brother, Green T. Burnett, III

One Reply to “Ethel Johnson, owner of ‘The Weekly Challenger’ dies”

  1. Faye Hines says:

    Condolences to the Johnson Family

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