Convict-turned-playwright H. B. Johnson Jr., 49, dies Anti-drug crusader succumbs to AIDS

March 23, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Dying of AIDS, Harry B. Johnson Jr. won release from the Maryland Penitentiary 2 1/2 years ago partly on the argument that he could spread the word to Baltimore kids that drugs kill.

In the time he had left, he wrote essays and poems, completed drafting a novel, visited schools. He died Thursday at Meridian Nursing Center in Catonsville. He was 49.

The man who won WMAR-TV's black playwright competition in 1992 while still imprisoned won it a second time as a free man, in 1994.

Mr. Johnson had served nine years of a 35-year sentence for a botched armed robbery in Annapolis when Gov. William Donald Schaefer freed him just before Christmas 1993.

In releasing the prisoner, the governor cited Mr. Johnson's illness. Mr. Johnson told school audiences he contracted AIDS from a contaminated needle while shooting drugs provided by guards in the penitentiary.

More than 60 friends and supporters petitioned for his release.

"Mr. Johnson has come a long way in recent years," Mr. Schaefer said in commuting the sentence, "clearly touching the lives of those who have read his work."

That work began pouring from Mr. Johnson's penitentiary cell about 10 years ago, often at the rate of three or four poems and essays a week. They were published in The Evening Sun and in magazines.

The year before his release from prison, Mr. Johnson won first place in the annual WMAR Drama Competition for Black Playwrights for his play "A Gift From the Hunters," which was about the destructive effects of drugs and drug-trafficking. Incarcerated, Mr. Johnson was barred from attending the screening of his work.

But when he again won the WMAR award with "Smooth Disappointment" not long after his release, Mr. Johnson borrowed money to engage two limousines to transport friends and family to the play's premiere at the Arena Players in Baltimore.

Mr. Johnson used the pen name H. B. Johnson, though many friends called him "Skinny" for his slight frame and fellow inmates called him "Mr. Skinny." He worked on a typewriter at the penitentiary, but when prison officials, apparently concerned over the attention he was getting, took away the machine, Mr. Johnson sent his work out in longhand.

Among those who worked for his release and signed the petition in his behalf were professors who taught him in prison, politicians, journalists and television star Charles S. Dutton, himself a former penitentiary prisoner.

"Every word I've written about H. B. and in behalf of H. B. has been well-rewarded," said East Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis, a friend of Mr. Johnson's and of his father, Bishop Harry B. Johnson Sr., assistant pastor of the Wilson Park Holy Church of Power on Madison Avenue.

"Through H. B. I received a wake-up call that things aren't going to change out there in the city unless I help make them change myself," Mr. Davis said.

Drew Leder, a philosophy professor at Loyola College who met Mr. Johnson while teaching at the prison, said, "What struck me most about H. B. was his sense of humor, his sense of irony. He had a fierce will to live and succeed against tremendous odds."

Sharette Kern began working for Mr. Johnson's release shortly after she met him as his social-work case manager at the penitentiary. "The first time I met him, we were locked together in a holding cell," Ms. Kern said, "and then suddenly we were talking about his life, my life, literature, the arts, the meaning of life, the meaning of prison, the meaning of death.

"He was an incredible man who became the godfather of my daughterand finishing an unpublished novel, "Baltimore Badlands."

Begun while Mr. Johnson was in solitary confinement at the penitentiary, the book is a thriller with a villainous Baltimore mortician and a hero who declares, "Fill a man's day with life, and he won't fill your lawn with graves."

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson visited several schools, presenting himself as a reverse role model. "Don't, don't end up like me," he told a hushed auditorium of middle-schoolers at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School last year.

Mr. Johnson and his six sisters grew up in West Baltimore. He was the son of a minister who was a Sparrows Point laborer during the week and preached on Sunday. His mother, who was a domestic worker, died in 1987.

A rebellious child and teen-ager, he was expelled from Booker T. Washington Junior High School in the eighth grade, served his first prison sentence at 17 and spent most of his adult life on the wrong side of the law.

He eventually earned a high school equivalency diploma in a North Carolina prison. Largely self-taught, he was an avid reader. "No one regrets my past mistakes greater than I," he wrote Governor Schaefer in 1993, adding, "I pray to leave behind the legacy of a greater life in my writing."

Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at Grace African Methodist Episcopal Church, 67 1/2 Winters Lane, Catonsville.

Survivors include a daughter, Azalea Johnson of Baltimore; six sisters, Vivian Watson, Betty Ellis, Priscilla Scott, Exminia Johnson and Eleanora Johnson, all of Baltimore, and Joy Harris of Raleigh, N.C.; and a grandson.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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