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Posted: February 20, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Horace Johnson: Living in changing times

Newton's first black judge one of the first to integrate

By William Brawley/

The honorable judge: Horace Johnson was one of the first students to be integrated in Newton County. He is also the first black judge to serve in Newton County.

Judge Horace Johnson has made a lot of memories since being born in Newton County Hospital in the late 50s. But the one that stands out most clearly happened at Ficquett Elementary School when he was one of the first black students to be integrated in Newton County.

"I can vividly remember walking out of school between a row of state patrol officers to block our view of the protests that were going on about integration," said Johnson. "I don't remember what grade I was in at the time but I remember that vividly."

Johnson grew up in the Sand Hill community, where his father taught math at Washington Street Elementary School. He remembers those days fondly, growing up in a tight-knit community where everyone looked out for one another.

"The neighbors would tell on you if you did something wrong, and if you did it in their house they'd spank you, and when you got home you'd get spanked again," Johnson said with a chuckle. "I didn't like it then, but I have a great appreciation of it now."

Johnson started his education early. Not only were both of his parents educators, his aunt also lived with them for a time and she was a student at Albany State at the time. There was no kindergarten for children in the black community so Johnson became his aunt's "practice pupil." He started first grade at the age of 4 under the tutelage of Ms. Juanita Clay, second grade was Ms. Odessa Washington and third grade was Ms. Sara Francis Hardeman, who also taught Johnson's father and who is still living.

"It was in third grade that integration was beginning to gel and my parents were approached about me being among the group of students who would be placed in a majority white school," he said.

And so Johnson made the transition beginning in the fourth grade with three or four other children from his community. His mother later told him that school officials had wanted to hold him back because of his age and she had refused to allow it, saying that if he could do the work that he should move forward.

"Kids at that age (Johnson was around 6 or 7-years-old) knew nothing much different," he said. "Maybe I was oblivious to it because my parents insulated me in a lot of ways. There was unrest in the community, marches and things regarding integration were taking place, but as a young kid I wasn’t directly involved," said Johnson. "I had a pretty good experience transitioning there."

Johnson went through his upper education, the first of the group that were in county schools with full integration. At that time students would go through seventh grade in elementary school, then eighth and ninth grade in junior high. Another big memory for Johnson is when it was time for the students to move from elementary to junior high, because some students didn’t go with him.

"Their parents pulled them out. That was the first year that George Walton Academy was formed and other institutions and there were students who were with me four and five years now gone. I knew why," he said. "But it didn’t make sense to me from a logical point. I was okay for four of five years and then I wasn’t. But it was a very telling moment for me," he said.

Johnson’s father transferred to Cousins Junior High to teach when he started there and Johnson said he couldn’t recall any instances of things going badly. Two years later he went to Newton County High School which once sat where Sharp Learning Center now does. His senior year he started at the current NHS location where he graduated with his dreams of going anywhere that wasn’t Covington.

"When I look back on it I couldn’t wait to get out of here," he said. "I guess a lot of it was because we didn’t get a McDonalds for the first time until around 1974 and maybe it wasn’t hip enough," he said with a laugh.

Despite not being hip enough in the 70s, Johnson chose to bring his family back in 1995 – nearly 20 years after leaving.

"Covington has always been a special place," he said. "Through its trials and troubles with regard to the societal things that were happening around us, Covington had a way of dealing with it in an appropriate, and I think a community-minded manner. Folks would talk. Which I think obviously is important and I think that tradition continues today with regard to how issues are dealt with," said Johnson.

"There were some ugly things going on and folks being arrested for no reason at all. But we have always had a way overall of finding ways to talk and work together and I think that’s a testimony to our success as a community today and frankly, it’s what made me want to come back home 20 years later with my boys attending the same schools that I did, from Ficqett to Cousins then to Eastside High School – because of where we are zoned – problems certainly still exist," said Johnson. "And viewpoints, how people interact one with the other within races and in separate races as well. But I think in many ways we have been able to forge good relationships simply because of the fact there were always those who sought to have dialogue going on even in the ugliest of times."

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