By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Carol Johnson, an activist who fought for recognition of the city’s African American history and the rights of the historic Seminary neighborhood, died on March 31. She was 67.
Johnson was born to Col. Marion Johnson and Crozet Johnson on Jan. 30, 1953.
Civic engagement was in Johnson’s blood. Her father was a member of the Secret Seven, a group of African American men who advocated for Alexandria’s African American community at a time when racial tensions were high.
“She took a lot of those lessons from him and her mother because they both were civic-minded. And Carol, I think it was just part of her make-up,” Brenda Adams, Johnson’s best friend since childhood, said. “Carol felt best when she was serving other people, especially children.”
Johnson attended Burgundy Farm Country Day School before joining Adams at Blessed Sacrament School. Johnson and Adams were some of the first black students to attend the school, but that didn’t stop them from participating in school activities. They played basketball, softball and track together before moving on to St. Mary’s Academy.
Johnson went to college at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, where she studied physical education. After graduating, she worked as a physical therapist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in southeast Washington D.C., but eventually went back to school to get a certificate in computer technology.
For the rest of her career, Johnson worked in I.T. for a number of companies, including Deloitte.
However, most people remember Johnson not for her career in technology but her lifelong dedication to Alexandria and its people.
“She loved this city, and she didn’t just say it – she practiced it,” Adams said. “She certainly made a difference in our community and will be sorely missed,” former Mayor Allison Silberberg said. “Alexandria has lost a pillar of the community. She spoke out for doing what is right and she spoke for the truth. I will certainly miss her and I’m deeply saddened about her loss. It’s a terrible loss for our community.”
Johnson was active in the Seminary Civic Association and represented her neighborhood on the broader Seminary Hill Association board of directors from 2016 to 2018. She fought tirelessly to ensure that the history of the Woods and Fort Ward neighborhoods, historically black enclaves in the city, was remembered and acknowledged by a city that has a complicated racial history.
“She was excellent at being able to explain our complex history, especially with regard to race relations. She had a gift for being able to share a story almost like your favorite teacher,” Silberberg said. “You could just sit and listen to her and absorb what she had to say. It was a gift that she had for sure.”
Many of the families in the Woods neighborhood, including the Johnsons, can trace their roots back to the emancipated slaves who first took up residence in the area after the Civil War. The promise of land and available agricultural jobs led many African Americans to settle in what was then known as the Seminary neighborhood and up the hill among the remnants of Fort Ward.
As a member of the Fort Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society, Johnson helped bring attention to areas of the city’s history that had gone overlooked or unrecognized.
“We did a lot of work to get the city to acknowledge the role of African Americans in that fort and the lives of African Americans at that fort and the sacred ground that a lot of our ancestors are buried on,” Adams, also a member of the society, said.
Johnson’s civic engagement was, in many ways, an extension of her family’s fight for the same issues, Frances Terrell, Seminary Civic Association president, said.
The ongoing controversy around the school system’s attempts to add stadium lighting at T.C. Williams High School’s Parker-Gray Stadium was another key fight for Johnson. Neighbors in the area claim that school leaders made a verbal promise to never light the field.
“That’s amazing because her father was one of the Secret Seven, one of the seven men who fought for the community, and had the school come up with that agreement. She was there fighting for her father’s legacy,” Terrell said.
Whenever the opportunity arose to volunteer in the community, it was easy to guarantee that Johnson would be there, Adams said.
“I remember that she told this story about how her father would sometimes get a phone call late at night – 10 or 11 p.m. or later – and she could hear his voice calmly say, ‘Ok, I understand. I’ll be there in about 10 minutes.’ And he would go,” Silberberg said.
Johnson took the same approach. Whenever someone was in need – whether it was a friend whose car had been impounded in Maryland or a food bank requesting donations – Johnson was there.
Adams recalled volunteering with Johnson as “popcorn ladies” for First Night Alexandria in 2019.
“We could’ve been out partying like everybody else was on New Year’s Eve, but we decided that would be fun to pop popcorn and give it to the kids. And that’s what we did,” Adams said.
Through it all, Johnson’s smile and quiet sense of humor made her a pleasure to hang out with, her friends said.
“You really felt a connection when you were with her,” Gwen Day-Fuller, a friend who served with Johnson in the Concerned Citizens Network of Alexandria, said. “You really felt that she was interested in you as an individual and wanted to be a friend. She was a good friend.”
Outside of her civic engagement, Johnson enjoyed going out to brunch with friends, watching science fiction movies and flooding Adams’ inbox with humorous texts.
Johnson never married and had no children of her own, but, in more recent years, she found a passion for helping the city’s youth through the CCNA, for which she served as program manager.
“She was very open in helping in any way that she could and really giving and sharing her talents,” Day-Fuller said. “She really had a sincere interest in what she was doing and in making sure the children got the best of what she could give.”
Despite suffering from a sickness in her later years, Johnson remained committed to improving the lives of others, even in small ways.
On March 29, two days before she passed, in the midst of the coronavirus, Johnson took the time to call Adams and remind her to be mindful about her health. The same day, she texted Adams, and, in what would be her final communication with her best friend, sent Adams a list of businesses that were offering days and hours for seniors.
“That was the last text I got from her. So, even in the end, two days before she died, she was thinking about other people and their needs,” Adams said.
Johnson is survived by her brother Francis and pre-deceased by her parents Marion and Crozet Johnson.