As editorial page editor at Guilford County’s largest newspaper, 55-year-old Allen Johnson has a significant amount of access and influence in the community.
Sometimes his mom has more.
While covering a heated community meeting held in a local church, the citizens voted to bar the press. Dorris Johnson happened to be among the group and when her son looked to her for support, she mouthed the words, “You’re gonna have to go.”
“Despite the high profile job, I’m still Dorris Johnson’s son to a lot of people,” says Johnson of his still-independent mother who worked at Lorillard for 30 years and, with Johnson’s late father, played an important role in instilling a love of learning in three siblings, Allen being the middle child.
Being a journalist, Johnson has a clearly articulated sense of place in the Baby Boom generation as he recounts the events that shaped the experience.
“I certainly think the Kennedy assassination was a defining moment because everybody in my generation remembers exactly where they were,” says Johnson. “I heard about the assassination from a friend’s mother, while walking home from school and it made us all, as kids, go into mourning. At that time in the African-American community you had two portraits in your home, Jesus and Kennedy, and later Martin Luther King.”
Johnson remembers the moon landing as “an absolutely magical moment.” He recalls staying up all night watching fuzzy video. “It was like watching a live science fiction movie!” says Johnson. “It was almost a form of entertainment for me to watch Walter Cronkite cover the space program and it made you proud to be an American and to appreciate the power of possibilities.”
Around the same time, tear gas used for riot control wafted into Johnson’s Lincoln Junior High School, closing school early, during a period of racial unrest at Dudley High School and N.C. A&T.
“Three years later, as a student at Dudley, we integrated,” says Johnson. “I remember that being a very unsettling and awkward and enlightening time!
“It was a good thing to integrate, but I didn’t want it to happen when I was there,” observes Johnson. “I was having a great tenth grade year!” Since Johnson didn’t grow up in the Dudley district, he was allowed to stay at Dudley because of his involvement in the ROTC program, which Page did not offer at that time.
Ultimately, it was an enriching experience in which new friendships formed. “White students learned that black students were just as smart as they were and in some cases smarter,” says Johnson. “And certainly, there were new white friends that wouldn’t have been my friends if we had not integrated.”
Some of Johnson’s Dudley classmates joined him at the University of North Carolina. “In the wake of Watergate, I wanted a double major in English and journalism, but I was closed out of journalism due to its popularity at the time,” he explains.
“In grad school, English classes put me to sleep,” says Johnson. “I loved them in undergrad but some of the full professors in grad school weren’t as engaging in the classroom; but I had a ball in my journalism courses, so I decided to get my master’s in journalism instead.”
With his new journalism degree, Johnson found himself teaching the subject at N.C. Central University until he won a fellowship to work at the Denver Post. Later, he was appointed editor at the Winston-Salem (NC) Chronicle, a black weekly newspaper, before landing his job at the News & Record in 1987.
It was while reporting for the Chronicle that Johnson met Darryl Hunt, who at 19 was accused of raping and murdering a Winston-Salem Sentinel copy editor. Johnson interviewed Hunt for three hours and became convinced of his innocence.
“I could not catch him in an inconsistency,” recalls Johnson, who was also called as a witness in the case.
Hunt’s now famous trial ended in a wrongful conviction that was finally overturned because of DNA evidence. Another man confessed to the crime. Hunt was exonerated after serving 19 years and, upon his release, he acknowledged the work done by Johnson and the Chronicle for helping to get the case reexamined.
“The coverage we did helped exonerate him,” says Johnson. “That made me feel good about journalism.”
In May, Johnson and his wife Eula will celebrate their second anniversary. The live in Greensboro. His plans for the next chapter of his career are open, but don’t include retirement. Johnson hopes to teach and get more involved with community, especially the mentoring of young black men.
Dorris Johnson can be proud.