Black History Month Day 5: The Legacy of Frank Johnson

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Frank Johnson is standing at attention at the Marine training facility at Montford Point, North Carolina. Circa 1940s. From the Frank Johnson Collection.

In 1945 Frank Jones Johnson, tall of stature, slender yet muscular of build, and 19 years old, was returning home to Macon, Georgia, from a tour of duty in the United States Marine Corps. Johnson returned to his father’s farm in West Bibb County, Georgia. The community was named Unionville by the residents. The name fitted because the society as a whole came together in unity to help their neighbors.

Johnson was a hero of sorts, but no one seemed to know it because very little if any, fanfare fell upon his accomplishment by the town fathers of Macon, Bibb County, Georgia.

Before 1942, no Black man in America had ever served in the US Marines. The popular belief among white Americans at the time was that Black men lacked the courage and physical toughness necessary to perform the duties that Marines are called upon to do for their country in times of war and peace.

The winds of war in full force in Europe and the Pacific, the Marines needed a few good men to save the homeland from an invasion by the Japanese and Germans. They turned to their darker men for the first time and opened a camp for Black recruits at Montford Point, North Carolina, adjacent to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where white Marines received training.

Conditions at Montford Point were deplorable. The island infested with mosquitos presented a challenge. Black recruits did not receive mosquitos nets. The boots were substandard, and living accommodations bordering on deplorable. They were able to get glimpses of Camp LeJeune. These Black men knew that their white counterparts had much better equipment and living arrangements.

They knew not to expect any better, after all, their unit embedded in the south where every institution presented a duality of life from water fountains to lunch counters, to waiting areas at medical facilities. The south followed the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case to the black letter of the law with respect to the separate part of this equation. It was lawful to maintain separate facilities for Black and white citizens. So what would make their experience in the Marine Corps any different?

Between 1942 and 1949, 20,000 Black men successfully navigated themselves through the harsh training conditions at Montford Point and served their country in the Marines.

Frank Johnson was one of those men. He had dropped out of high school to enlist into the Marine Corps. When the war was over and his days gave way to less heroic pursuits, Johnson enrolled in Hudson High in Macon to complete his education.

Three important things happened to him when he returned to school. He went out for the football team and became one of the team’s top performers. His skills on the gridiron earned him a football scholarship to Savannah State College.

Also, he met a 17-year-old co-ed named Dorothy Purnell. One day, he talked with her after school and asked her to become his girlfriend. Miss Purnell was reluctant to say yes, so she told him that she would think it over and give him an answer.

“By the end of our conversations,” the former Miss Purnell said, “I looked around the classroom, and it dawned on me that there were a lot more women in the class than men, so I decided that I’d better tell him yes before we ended the conversation.”

The two became an item on the campus. At the end of the school term, Miss Parnell was awarded a scholarship to Savannah State College. After graduation, they married.

Additionally, in 1945 Alma Bazel Androzzo penned the lyrics to the song “If I Can Help Somebody.” The words to this song became the words that Johnson would live his life by:

“If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or a song, if I can show somebody that he is traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain. If I can do my duty, as a good man ought, If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought, If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.”

His first public act of community service was organizing a Boy Scout Troop. For 12 years, Troop 50, under the tutelage of Johnson, served the boys of the Unionville Community. Johnson got permission to hold weekly troop meetings at the Eugenia Hamilton Elementary School and later at the Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Each week Johnson challenged his young scouts to “Do a good deed every day.” Doing for others is what he preached, what he taught, and what he lived.

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In Frank Johnson’s last day, a faithful scout would visit and help him through his final illness.

In 1960 a bond developed between the Scoutmaster and a Tenderfoot Scout. That bond lasted a lifetime. L-R Frank Johnson, Harold Michael Harvey

Before the 1965 Voters Rights Act became law, he walked the streets of Macon, encouraging Black people to register and then to turn out to vote on election day. (We sure could have used him a few weeks ago to urge the American populace to vote their conviction.)

In the early 1970s, Johnson, along with two of his former scouts, Gerald Harvey, and this writer, organized the Unionville Improvement Association. At each meeting of the UIA, Alma Bazel Androzzo’s song, “If I Can Help Somebody,” was sung. He sought to live every word of this song. He taught others to live out the true meaning of these lyrics.

In 1977, the Unionville Improvement Association lobbied the city of Macon for the construction of a recreation center in the Unionville community. The center opened in 1979 at the cost of $750,000.

In 1996, Johnson served as one of the torchbearers for the Olympic Flame as it passed through Macon on its way from Greece to Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2002, Macon Mayor Jack Ellis named the Unionville Recreation Center the Frank Johnson Center. It honors the hard work and legacy of the man, many called the Mayor of Unionville.

Frank Jones Johnson died today, December 11, 2016.

He helped a whole lot of people as he passed through this life. Long live his legacy of service to others. May we all go out and do a good deed today.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round, and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.

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Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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