remembering his relative Wes Johnson, who was lynched in 1937 in Abbeville, AL.
James Johnson: I guess maybe I was an outspoken young boy — very curious, had a lot of questions. Why can’t I drink at this water fountain? Why do I have to go through the back door of white people’s homes? And we would pass right by nice white schools, but we were not allowed to go to those schools. I had a lot of whys, but no one would give me the answers. Most of the time they would tell me, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “That’s the way it always has been.”
But my mother told me about this young black guy, his name was Wes Johnson, and I was related to him. And so what had happened, this white guy thought there was a courtship going on between Wes Johnson and this white man’s wife. So he was put in jail and a mob came. They took him and he was hanged and shot, I believe.
My mother’s tone was very precautionary. It was very difficult, particularly for young black guys growing up here. And the least thing that you do, or it was perceived as being out of line, you could very well lose your life. My mother told me, “The most important thing here is keeping the family together. Don’t worry about what they say or what they do, if you fight back, the family will be destroyed.” And so we had to accept that, but, having to accept all this stuff, it caused me to be very bitter, because I didn’t like the way things operated.
This is a time when the Civil Rights workers were being killed over in Mississippi and Alabama as well, prior to the march from Selma to Montgomery, so things were really just getting kicked off here. I was able to take part in the march where we integrated the Star Cafe. It being a small town like this, everybody knew everybody. They knew who I was, and they knew my grandmother, and she received a call once.
The words to her were, “Chastise that grandboy of yours, otherwise he gonna get in trouble.” So my grandmother told me, she said, “Listen, you don’t have to stay here, but I gotta live here.” So rather than to risk her life, or my younger siblings, which were girls, I left.
‘Course I wandered around for a while, and I still wasn’t finding the answers I needed, so I knew that the best thing for me to do was to get in college—majored in education. By then I knew that eventually I was gonna return to the South, but I had to come back prepared. There was mob violence in New York and Chicago and throughout the North, but in the South it was so heinous because if you were a black male, you could very easily be lynched. Whether it was an electric chair or gas chamber, or whether it was with a rope or gun, it didn’t matter.
And so I ended back here in Alabama, where I got my start, because there was a need to come back to help. It allowed me to be able to give the kids some of the answers that they were searching for that I couldn’t get. So to come back here at home, to a place where you grew up, where you were refused access to this high school, but now you’re teaching in that high school. I felt like I had accomplished something.
And we are approximately 20 miles from where Wes Johnson was lynched. I don’t know where it actually took place, but I often wonder if this is the area it happened. I wonder if this is the tree where it happened, you know? But the people that could’ve told me more about that are dead now.
The era of lynchings, it left a bitter taste in the mouths, or in the lives, of both black and whites throughout this country who did not particularly like what was going on, but many went along just to get along. So this is a very dark spot in American history that would never be erased, because the people who could’ve done something about it allowed it to happen.