OXFORD, Ga. — Long before he became a Superior Court Judge, the late Horace J. Johnson Jr. was like any other college student, rushing from class to class across the stately campus at Oxford College of Emory University.
Today, a building he likely frequented 40 years ago now bears his name.
On Friday, Oxford College of Emory University held a dedication ceremony renaming historic Language Hall as Johnson Hall. The edifice was built in 1874 and restored about eight years ago.
Johnson’s wife Michelle, sons James and Bryant, and mother Lottie B. Johnson, along with a crowd made up of university dignitaries, Johnson’s colleagues and friends, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers, and those he mentored attended the bittersweet event under blue skies and sunshine.
Johnson’s wife, Michelle, said her husband loved Oxford but revealed that the college was not his first choice.
If Johnson’s parents had not wisely offered their 17-year old son a new car back in the 1970s to attend Oxford College, the late judge’s destiny – and that of his alma mater – might have been different, she said.
With a bright butterfly resting on her sleeve, Michelle Johnson described decisions her late husband made that altered his life, and hers, and that of many other people he touched along the way.
Johnson graduated from Oxford College of Emory University in 1977, and from Emory’s Goizueta Business School in 1979. He later earned his Juris Doctor at the University of Georgia School of Law. Johnson went into private practice and in 2002, Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him to the Superior Court bench for the Alcovy Judicial Circuit.
That made him the first Black Superior Court judge in the circuit covering Newton and Walton counties.
Johnson also served on Oxford College’s Board of Counselors for over 30 years.
“Horace’s circle was wide,” said Douglas Hicks, dean of Oxford College of Emory University.
Hicks said Johnson was scheduled to speak at his alma mater’s commencement in 2020, but COVID-19 quashed those plans.
“And then we lost Horace,” Hicks said, referring to the judge’s sudden death on July 1, 2020.
Hicks said Johnson delivered a commencement address in 1999, and shared some of the judge’s remarks from that speech: “We have taller buildings but shorter tempers,” he said. “We love too seldom but lie too often. We’ve added years to life, but not life to years.”
“Horace added life to years,” Hicks said.
Emory University President Gregory Fenves touched on Oxford’s checkered past and how sections of campus were built by enslaved people. Fenves also mentioned that the college was segregated for 60 years; people of color were barred from attending or teaching at Oxford.
The university is striving for healing and reconciliation, he said. Fenves said Oxford College at Emory University is working toward aligning its past with its present lofty values of integrity, courage and excellence.
Fenves said Johnson embodied the university’s values by taking on “big projects” that sparked change.
Johnson grew up in Newton County's Sand Hill community and was a graduate of Newton High School, part of the first integrated class to go through the local schools.
Fenves said Johnson made history then, and continues to do so today through his legacy and the example he has set for young people to follow.
Johnson was a past president of the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia and served on the Judicial Council of Georgia.
He was a member of the Kiwanis Club in Covington, serving as the 2018-19 president. He and his wife, Michelle, were 2002 graduates of Leadership Georgia, and Horace Johnson served as the 2009 president of the organization.
Johnson was a founding board member of Newton Mentoring Inc. and the Arts Association in Newton County board of directors and was on the first advisory board for the Boys & Girls Club in Newton County.
Judge Cheveda McCamy spoke about Johnson’s wide smile, unfailing kindness and generous mentorship. McCamy succeeded Johnson last year after Gov. Brian Kemp appointed her to the Superior Court judgeship in Newton and Walton counties.
McCamy had served as chief assistant district attorney in the Flint Judicial Circuit. Prior to Johnson’s untimely death, McCamy ran for Johnson’s Superior Court judge seat. Johnson had at that time decided not to run for reelection to Superior Court as he had intended to seek a position on the Georgia Supreme Court.
McCamy lost the election, and Johnson was the first person to reach out to her after her defeat. When she stepped up to fill Johnson’s seat on the bench, other judges contacted her with offers to assist and share how Johnson had been helpful to them.
James O’Neal, Johnson’s lifelong friend, former college roommate and fraternity brother, spoke about Johnson’s strong religious faith, humility and unwavering compassion. Even as a student, Johnson “never dozed off to sleep” without kneeling to pray each night, O’Neal remembered.
“Horace was a lover of humanity,” O’Neal said. “He was also a lover of justice.”
Johnson Hall is the second building named for the late judge in Newton County. The county government honored Johnson in February by renaming the Judicial Center in his memory.
To continue the good judge’s legacy, Michelle Johnson has requested individuals share their memories of Horace Johnson. People can email their recollections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oxford College has also announced the establishment of the Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Scholarship Endowment to provide need-based scholarships to Oxford students.
In a news release, Michelle Johnson thanked Oxford and Emory for helping to preserve her husband’s legacy. “Our hearts are warmed, and we are so humbled by this expression. Horace loved Oxford. This is an amazing tribute to him on the campus that he adored,” she said.
Hicks said, “We want to thank Michelle, Bryant and James, and all of the Johnson and Bryant families, for your support and for sharing Horace with us. Through the scholarships that will bear his name and in this building, his intellect, compassion, dedication to public service and commitment to justice and equality will live on at Oxford.”
Covington News Publisher Taylor Beck and Walton Tribune Publisher David Clemons contributed to this story.