Our Stories Matter: Ethel Johnson

Ethel L. Johnson was a wife, mother, entrepreneur and woman of God. She died on May 26, 2023, at the age of 92.

BY GWENDOLYN REESE | President, African American Heritage Association

In Loving Memory of Ethel Johnson

In 2022, I received a surprise call from Mrs. Ethel Johnson. She wanted to tell me how much she missed, appreciated, and valued the I AM columns I had written for The Weekly Challenger for several years and asked me to start writing the weekly column again.

I explained how challenging it had become to write a weekly column, and her response was that it didn’t have to be weekly. She asked me to write whenever I could. I promised her I would, but sadly, she died before I started writing again. A few months later, I asked her daughter, Lyn, if I could start a new column, “Our Stories Matter,” in her mother’s memory, and she welcomed the idea.

The first story I want to tell is that of Mrs. Ethel Johnson.

Ethel L. Johnson was a wife, mother, entrepreneur and woman of God. She died on May 26, 2023, at the age of 92.

Born May 12, 1931, in Soperton, Ga., she was the eldest 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.

Left, Ethel Johnson, Dierdre Downing-Jackson and Deanie Victor at the St. Petersburg Branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s Rosenwald School event in 2019.

Mrs. Johnson 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 Mrs. Johnson attended was burned down under suspicious circumstances.

Burning Black schools and churches was the norm in the Jim Crow South. The school was rebuilt with very little interruption to the children’s education. The high school she attended 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.

After junior college, she headed to Savannah State University but could only attend summer courses because the money had run out. Eventually she had a chance to move to St. Petersburg with a cousin.

During her short stay in St. Pete, she met Evie Johnson, a devout 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. 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.

When her husband died in 2001, she took over the reins as The Challengers publisher at 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.

It warms my heart to honor the promise I made to Mrs. Johnson and to do so in her memory. The monthly column, “Our Stories Matter,” will start in April. Occasionally, I will invite a guest columnist to share a story that matters, for we all have incredible stories, and they should be told.

Gwendolyn Reese

The Our Stories Matter column was created in the loving memory of Ethel Johnson, wife, mother, entrepreneur and woman of God.

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