A tribute to a humble pioneer

Leader: Praising Willie C. Johnson for his many years of community service, the Freetown Improvement Association honors an activist.

March 18, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

When Willie C. Johnson moved to the Glen Burnie neighborhood of Freetown in 1963, he wanted a loan to finish building his three-bedroom ranch for his wife and newborn daughter. But he had a hard time finding a bank to help him, he speculated, because he's black.

"It was discrimination at that time, in housing and everything else," he said.

Johnson finally found an institution that would lend him the $7,000 he needed to install a furnace and windows, but he wasn't satisfied.

Seeing the community's need for public and senior housing, he wanted to help his new neighbors. And he eventually helped accomplish that with the construction of Freetown Village, a public housing project built in the 1970s.

Now, he's become the un- official leader of the community and earned the nickname the "mayor of Freetown." There is a street named Willie Johnson Lane in Freetown to commemorate all that he has done for the community.

Johnson, 66, a retired supervisor at Bethlehem Steel, is humble about his achievements. But the Freetown Improvement Association, of which he was president for the past 20 years, isn't hesitating to honor him.

The association is scheduled to thank him and three other community members during the association's 47th anniversary dinner last night.

"I feel good about the idea and everything, but I just don't like to be put out in front because there are so many things that people do that are important or better," Johnson said.

Also scheduled to be honored were Walter Caldwell, the association's vice president; Theodore R. Brown Jr., a member of the association; and Willie M. Nixon, whose Nixon Bus Co. serves the community.

Johnson moved to Freetown in the 1960s because it is the hometown of his wife, Helen. They raised their two children, Cassandra, now 37, and Daon, 31, in the area, which was established in the 1840s by free blacks who bought the land near Marley Creek.

During his early years in the community, Johnson headed the effort with the community association to bring roads, public water and trash collection to the area in the 1970s. He also helped establish the area's recreation center, which has a tennis court and baseball field.

"He's really been the backbone of the community in leading them to receive all the needs for the community and to ensure that the community is treated fairly and has the attention of the state and county elected officials," said Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat.

Johnson's efforts also have extended outside of the community. In 1972, he was appointed as a county commissioner of the Housing Authority and served for 17 years.

In the position, he worked to get public housing at Freetown Village, senior housing at Burwood Gardens in Glen Burnie and Section 8 housing in the county.

Robert A. Pascal, county executive from 1974 to 1982, said Johnson was a catalyst in many of the area's projects and that any plan was better off with his involvement.

"He's a great friend and helped me out an awful lot in communicating with people at that time who really did not have the voice they have now," he said. "He was really a pioneer in that, as far as I was concerned."

But Johnson, embarrassed, laughs when he hears such praise. He said his accomplishments are simply something that residents should do if they see something that will improve the community.

"It was just something that needed to be done," he said. "Anybody else could have done the same things."

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