The scent of homemade fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, ribs and a host of other “soul foods” is what second-year broadcast student Evan Miles associates with her fondest memories of her grandmother.
For the rest of Tallahassee, however, the moment most ingrained in their memories is when Dorothy Inman Johnson was elected as the first black female mayor of Tallahassee in 1989.
The Atlanta native said her grandmother’s achievements inspired her.
“When I found out that she was the first African-American female mayor of Tallahassee, I was impressed,” Miles said. “It made me feel like I was close to someone famous.”
Political leader and trailblazer Johnson, however, said her activism and passion for justice didn’t fully manifest until young adulthood.
Johnson knew from childhood she wanted to be a teacher, a position she held for almost 20 years before being elected to the city commission.
Every Christmas, while children begged parents for toy trucks and Barbie dolls, Johnson would ask for a chalk board and chalk to help her teach her pupils when she played “school” with her siblings and friends.
Johnson said those times where she played “school” were the only times she was able to break out of her shell.
“I was very shy when I was younger, but when I did things I felt comfortable and confident doing, I wasn’t shy at all,” Johnson, executive director of the Capital Area Community action Agency, said. “My mom didn’t think it was normal because I was always spending time by myself, but I was doing things that I loved.”
In high school, Johnson participated in various protests, demonstrations and sit-ins in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala. Her experiences there prepared her for a lifetime of activism on behalf of minorities and low-income families.
The sharpest memory she has of the protests is the renowned day of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Johnson was walking with her siblings to Abyssinia Baptist Church in Ensley, her neighborhood near the outskirts of Birmingham, when she heard a distant blast.
“That’s where people went to get their tanks filled and go back out and be encouraged,” Johnson said. “Besides being devastating with the loss of the four little girls who were killed in the bombing, it was very symbolic. The people who bombed it thought that by doing that it would scare everybody involved into not attending these group meetings, but all it did was reinforce everyone’s resolve to make a change.”
After leaving for Clark Atlanta University to pursue her degree, Johnson returned home every summer and “walk the red clay streets of rural Birmingham,” attempting to rally members of the black community to vote. Her responsibilities were at home, she said, as she was the fifth oldest of 14 children.
Johnson said her mother’s activism inspired her to stay politically active and involved. Her mother would organize carpools for protestors to travel from sit-ins and demonstrations in shifts.
“I think the innate sense that we are here for more than ourselves is something my mom drilled in us as kids,” Johnson said.
Her father, however, influenced Johnson in a different way. A self-taught artist and craftsman, Johnson’s father taught her to paint and helped her develop a love for the arts, a hobby she still passionately pursues.
Johnson said her involvement in theatre, drama and writing helped her break out of her introversion and better connect with others.
“A lot of the people who knew me in elementary and high school were absolutely shocked when they read in the paper that I had been the first black female mayor of Tallahassee because I was so quiet and reserved,” she said.
A Lifelong Career of Activism
The decision to run for mayor, she said, was one of faith and uncertainty, and was a position she held in high regard.
“I was kind of charting new ground, and I felt that it brought with it a burden and a responsibility,” Johnson said. “If you are the first black female to do something, people are going to judge all other black females based on how good you were. I had to learn to vote with my head and my heart.”
Ken Armstrong, president of the United Way of Big Bend, described Johnson as “a passionate, determined person who never takes no for an answer.”
“Dot and I see the world in very similar ways…we’re both advocates and so it’s easy for us to talk about things because we’re often on the same wavelength.”
Bradford Johnson, an aid to the mayor in community relations and external affairs and FAMU agri-business alumnus of 2007, also emphasized Johnson’s passion for service.
“After a certain time frame, you’ll see certain officials say, ‘My time has come and gone’…she’s not that person. Whatever she starts she sticks with… she has a certain intuitiveness.”
Johnson maintains that, despite her many accomplishments, she is still a member of the Tallahassee community. After retiring next year, she hopes to devote more time to painting, spending time with her family and writing her book, which she titled “Poverty In America: A View from Down Here.”
“I guess what inspires me most is seeing people coming through our doors in abject poverty, and seeing that family a year or two later, after receiving not just our services but counseling, education and job help as well, being successful and standing on their own two feet,” Johnson said.