Willie C. Johnson, 67, unofficial `mayor of Freetown,' steel worker

April 27, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Willie Charles Johnson, unofficial "mayor of Freetown" and a neighborhood activist who labored tirelessly for decades to improve the quality of life for residents of the historic Anne Arundel County hamlet, died April 20 of a heart attack at Harbor Hospital Center. He was 67.

Mr. Johnson was born and raised in Hermitage, Ark., the son of a railroader. After graduation from high school, he moved with his family to Detroit. Later, he enlisted in the Army, serving in Germany with a medical unit.

He moved to Baltimore and went to work in the early 1960s at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Sparrows Point, eventually being promoted to supervisor. He worked at the steel company for 32 years, retiring in the early 1990s.

He then went back to work, as a truck driver for New England Motor Freight Co., and retired a second time in 1998.

In 1961, he married Helen McLarin, who had grown up in Freetown, an Anne Arundel community that dates to 1851, when James Spencer, a free black, acquired 35 acres from Charles R. Stewart.

After the Civil War, the area became known as Freetown as recently freed slaves settled there. According to the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, the site is an "excellent example of the black communities that emerged after the Civil War in Maryland."

In 1963, Mr. Johnson, his wife and their newborn daughter moved to the neighborhood. He had a difficult time securing a loan to finish building his three-bedroom home and suspected that it was because he was black.

"It was discrimination at that time, in housing and everything else," he told The Sun in an interview last year.

"Finding affordable housing and helping improve the community became his quest. He worked with my dad, who passed on his activism to get things done," said Mrs. Johnson, a retired Anne Arundel County elementary school teacher.

As a member and later president of the Freetown Improvement Association for 20 years, he brought to the attention of state and county elected officials the community's needs.

Through his work with the association, he brought to the community paved roads, public water, sewers, trash removal and a recreation center with tennis courts and a baseball diamond.

"There are always a few individuals in every community who take upon themselves the responsibility of leadership, and for years he was the driving force behind Freetown," said Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican and close friend of many years.

"He was just very steadfast and persistent in getting things done for his community. He was very effective, and he always took the time, even if it meant taking time off from work, to do a walk-through or meet with officials," said Del. Joan Cadden, a Brooklyn Park Democrat.

"He was quiet, unassuming but very effective. When he asked you something, it was always in a gentlemanly way, and you'd do things out of respect for him. This is how he got so much done," she said. "He was a natural leader who got involved in his neighborhood out of the goodness of his heart."

"He was just a wonderful and very humble man. He was not boisterous and was laid back. He liked being behind the scenes, the organizer, who made things happen," said Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Pasadena Democrat who had worked with Mr. Johnson since 1974.

Because of his belief in the need for affordable public and senior housing, he was instrumental in the establishment of Freetown Village, a public housing project built during the 1970s, and, later, Timberland Village.

"He always had the respect of the officials and politicians. When he called, they came," said Walter Caldwell, a member of one of the founding Freetown families and vice president of the association.

"He always believed in doing what was right for the community. He will be greatly missed," Mr. Caldwell said.

Last year, at the association's 47th anniversary celebration, Willie Johnson Lane was named in recognition of Mr. Johnson's devotion to Freetown.

"It was just something that needed to be done," Mr. Johnson told The Sun last year. "Anybody else could have done the same things."

He was a longtime member, Sunday school teacher and trustee of Halls United Methodist Church in Glen Burnie, where services were held yesterday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, the Rev. Daon Johnson of Hermitage, Tenn.; a daughter, Cassandra Johnson-Wingfield of Pasadena; five brothers, Lonzo Johnson, Lex Johnson, Sam Johnson, Howard Johnson and Donovan Johnson, all of Detroit; two sisters, Mae Davis of Detroit and Sonia Dobson of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and four grandsons.

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