Horace Johnson, first black mayor of Hillsborough, wore a bulletproof vest during his first year in office in 1989.
Johnson recalled getting word of threats made against his life – and then marching in a town parade, the bulletproof vest beneath his suit.
“I had the vest on, and I was praying, ‘Lord, if anything happens, don’t let it be to my wife and kids.’”
As Johnson tells it, his career mirrors that parade: publicly championing civil rights, while privately confronting threats.
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Few realized the dangers, Johnson said – and not only in 1989. Johnson first faced threats in 1969, when he helped lead a selective buying campaign to protest segregated businesses, and organized against plans to fire black teachers and close black schools in Orange County.
Then in 1995, the town began tense negotiations about land for a new reservoir. One of the landowners entered Johnson’s office acting nervous and fidgety – and then left.
The next day police warned Johnson about the close call: the man intended to kill Johnson. Later the man confessed that it was the sight of Johnson’s walking cane that prevented the murder.
“He said, ‘I would’ve killed him the first day, but I saw his stick, and I didn’t want it on my conscience to kill a cripple. … Mwah!” Johnson said, kissing his walking cane. “That’s the price you pay for freedom and justice.”
Johnson recounted these close calls during an opening reception of an exhibit honoring his life and work, at the Orange County Historical Museum. Johnson served as mayor from 1989-2001, for six terms, following a 12-year stint on the town board of commissioners.
The exhibit, “Horace Johnson and the History of Orange County,” is open through February, in celebration of Black History Month.
The museum opening kicked off a series of tributes to Johnson last week. Both the towns of Hillsborough and Carrboro declared “Horace Johnson Day” on Saturday, Feb. 4, during a special program to celebrate Johnson.
Drawing a crowd of over 100, Saturday’s tribute was sponsored by the Free Spirit Freedom project of the Hillsborough Arts Council, along with the Orange County Historical Museum and Orange County Department on Aging.
“I think it’s important that we honor people who made an impact, while they’re still living and here,” said Orange County Commissioner Renee Price, co-organizer of Free Spirit Freedom. “If we don’t engage in the conversation, then we’ll never know, and we’ll repeat the same history,” Price said.
Museum director Candace Midgett explained how understanding civil rights history gives context to Johnson’s courage.
“It took a lot of courage in 1969 – to stand up and speak out one year after Dr. King was assassinated … to stick your neck out and let your name be used, you are putting yourself out on the line when you do that,” Midgett said.
“Mr. Johnson embodies courage and bravery, and that’s something I want to take as a model for my life.”
The museum displays photos of Johnson’s family where, as the youngest child of 13, the doted-on Johnson grew up reading five newspapers every night with his father.
The exhibit shows Johnson in his baseball uniform for the Kansas City Monarchs, part of the all-black baseball league. As Johnson traveled the South and Midwest, he saw segregation play out over and over. Barred from whites-only restaurants, he and his teammates often lived on soda, candy and fruit.
Settling down in Hillsborough in the 1950s, Johnson challenged school segregation by enrolling his sons in the then-all-white Cameron Park Elementary. As newspaper clippings and a telegram in the museum show, Johnson rallied with other black parents, teachers, and students. They protested the firing of black teachers who were accused of “racism” and “communism,” and the planned closure of black Efland-Cheeks and Cedar Grove elementary schools.
The museum commemorates the campaign, displaying cardboard buttons, homemade by children, that read, “Save Cedar Grove Now” and “White Racists Closed Cedar Grove School.”
Johnson described the contradictions he saw in the school segregation: school officials claimed there were “good black schools” to justify segregation. But once integration began, the school board declared them now not good enough for white students.
“I said to (the school officials), who are you lying to? Are you lying to us, or to yourself?”
Johnson’s willingness to ask the hard questions put him in the public eye. He recalled how black parents and teachers had written a petition, denouncing the planned teacher firings and school closures. But the man chosen to read the petition got nervous at the last minute.
“So I grabbed the petition and spoke up,” Johnson said.
“I was angry that no one would speak up. I was fearful that society would accept that what was done to us was alright.”
“I could’ve sat home in my easy chair. But something pulled me in, out of the rocking chair, to get up, listen up, and use the system.”
News clippings display more of Johnson’s achievements: bringing water and sewer lines to the Fairview and West Hillsborough communities and securing the town reservoir to expand Hillsborough’s water capacity.
Another clipping announces the ban on downtown trucks that Johnson won, after a woman in a wheelchair was killed by a truck. Under Johnson’s lead, the town prevented a landfill in Hillsborough, set up affordable housing and affordable home repairs, and established a prepared meals tax to promote tourism.
It took a lot of courage in 1969 – to stand up and speak out one year after Dr. King was assassinated … to stick your neck out and let your name be used
Candace Midgett, museum director
Johnson led the community during tense and changing times, Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee said.
And not everyone liked change: McKee recalled how just after was Johnson elected, McKee ran into a store owner, a fellow white man, who started ranting to McKee.
“He told me, ‘I want you to put it back like it was it was in the ’50s.’”
As he told the story Saturday, McKee turned to Johnson:
“Because of you, it’s not going to go back to like it was in the ’50s.”
Current Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens called Johnson’s work an inspiration for equality – but pointed out that the struggle continues.
“We’re not immune from racism today, and we’re still fighting these battles today,” Stevens said.
“What people always say to me is, ‘I love Hillsborough.’ That spirit of community doesn’t happen overnight,” Stevens said. “That happens because of what happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago. I see Horace Johnson and others as embodiments of that spirit.”
Johnson challenged the community to carry on his spirit.
“I was the guy who was threatened three different times, but I went on faith, I went on belief.”
“I wonder, who will have the courage now? See, racism and classism are existing in Hillsborough now,” he said.
“What we need is people to leave their comfort zones, like I did. So get up, go listen, and learn.”