Talk with any grey-haired Houston radicals long enough and the name Lenwood Johnson is bound to come up — usually followed by an outrageous story delivered with a knowing chuckle. Johnson was a legend in Houston’s activist circles, primarily for his 15-year fight to save Allen Parkway Village, but also for his absolute refusal to compromise.
When it came to preserving Allen Parkway Village, a low income housing complex just west of downtown, Johnson was as pigheaded and stubborn as they come. And Johnson came by that obstinate streak honestly, as folks used to say.
By all accounts Johnson had a fairly normal childhood, well as normal as the child of poor black sharecroppers growing up in Jim Crow Texas could hope for. A 1995 Houston Press profile of Johnson noted some of the casual injustices he faced, including a land dispute that would foreshadow his life’s work.
In the early 1960s, Johnson was studying physics at Prairie View A&M when his grandfather passed. At the time of his death, Johnson’s grandfather owed a Brenham bank about $160. Since Johnson’s parents didn’t have the money to pay off the loan, the bank tried to foreclose on the family’s farm — all 200 acres of it.
Inflation and the strength of the dollar aside, getting 200 acres of quality farmland for less than one dollar per acre is a steal, and Johnson’s family knew it. They hired a Houston lawyer who said he could save the farm. Turned out he was half right, Johnson’s folks only lost about 60 acres to the bank.
The experience of fighting for, and losing, land stuck with Johnson — so, when he was a disabled, fortysomething, divorced, single parent living in Houston’s version of the projects and the government wanted to bulldoze his home, he said no. He’d had enough.
Johnson led marches, filed lawsuits, gathered signatures, and when that wasn’t enough he berated, bullied and accused. He claimed that the city was conspiring with developers to tear down low income housing and put in condos.
He accused black and white politicians of getting payoffs from developers. Johnson even claimed that the government was holding up his disability payments because of his activism. He fought the city, state and even the federal government over money and land — two things as scared as bullets and the Bible in Texas. And against all odds, Johnson actually won.
Sure it was a pyrrhic victory, after the court cases and the marches wrapped up in the mid-1990s, Allen Parkway Village was still standing — but at less than 50 percent of its original capacity. However, when the ribbon was cut on the newly rechristened Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway Village, Johnson’s crusade to save some low income housing in the Fourth Ward/Montrose area seemed a lot less quixotic.
If Johnson’s life was a Hollywood movie it would end there: with the neighborhood saved from the developers. Cut to black, roll credits, cue Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Except life isn’t a Hollywood movie.
Johnson was only able to enjoy his victory for a relatively short amount of time. Around the turn of the century, he moved out of public housing and into a Near Northside apartment. In 2001 Johnson was evicted from that location for owing $4,000 in back utility bills.
Johnson then wound up in a duplex near Freedman’s Town. The portrait of Johnson’s later years that emerges from the few sources that documented them — some articles in the Houston Defender, a few out of the way blog posts and a Go Fund Me page — shows a marked contrast to the man who grabbed headlines a generation or so before.
In the summer of 2017, when the home he was renting needed repair, Johnson faced eviction again. Now, closer to 80 than 40, riddled with infirmities and living on about $160 a month, Johnson wasn’t about to put up a fight. It was Johnson’s acquiescence that stunned those who knew him according to Perata Bradley, a neighborhood activist who befriended Johnson in the years before his death.
“Forced out due to compliance and submissiveness, yeah, something has definitely knocked the fight out of Johnson and one by one, if nothing is done effectively and orderly the remaining residents of Freedman’s Town will eventually face the same fate,” Bradley, writing at the blog Eyes of 4th Ward Media Team, said.
Along with documenting Johnson’s ongoing fight for housing, Bradley’s writing offers insights into Johnson’s mental state in the years before his death.
“Four years or more without the basics like utilities, adequate healthcare and nutritional needs not to mention wants like a bed and living room fixtures. Clothes haven’t been washed and cleaned in months,” Bradley wrote. “He spends 20 hours of the day inside his home either sleeping on a cot [or] on the floor. I presumed ready to die. And no one would know all these things because of the man Lenwood is and became.”
In what is either cosmic irony, cynical manipulation or humble magnanimity, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, whom Johnson vilified, insulted and detested during the Allen Parkway Village battle, came to his aid in his final days. When Jackson-Lee came to Johnson’s home, she commented that “no one should be living like this,” according to Bradley.
Jackson-Lee’s intervention got Johnson an additional 30 days in his residence, improved his access to healthcare and her office helped him to travel to follow-up appointments. Whatever Jackson-Lee’s motivations for getting involved in the life of an old adversary, her efforts at least helped Johnson see his 75th birthday.
When news of Johnson’s death broke, it came the old way, the word of mouth way — the way information used to travel in the neighborhoods Johnson fought to protect. It took four whole days, an eternity in internet time, for people to start commenting on Johnson’s passing. One of the more succinct eulogies came from Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
“Lenwood Johnson was one of boldest fighters for public housing that Houston has ever known. His service on the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing and his fight to save Freedman’s Town will not be forgotten. May he rest in power,” Ellis wrote on his Facebook page.