Phillip I. Johnson, 81, masonry contractor

October 31, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Phillip I. Johnson, a retired masonry contractor who built rowhouses in city neighborhoods and was an advocate for fellow minority builders, died of a heart attack Wednesday at his Forest Park home. He was 81.

Born in Baltimore and raised on old School Street on the west side, he was a 1939 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School.

He joined the Army during World War II and rose to become a staff sergeant. Assigned to the Pacific, he drove an ammunition truck in the supply corps and participated in the battles of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. He was also stationed in the Philippines, where he was wounded in the knee by shrapnel.

Family members said he later spoke of the experience of going to a field hospital for treatment. He was offered a bunk near the center of a large tent but declined the spot, taking a bed near the tent's outside perimeter. The tent, marked by a red cross, was hit by a Japanese bomb, and Mr. Johnson told of seeing many of his fellow patients killed.

After the war, he returned to Baltimore but found few jobs available. He tried living in New York's Bronx and working odd jobs in Newark, N.J., but returned to his native city and enrolled in the old Veterans' Trade School in Northwest Baltimore. He trained in bricklaying and general masonry work.

Mr. Johnson began working for contractors based in the Little Italy neighborhood in the late 1940s. About a decade later he founded Johnson Masonry Co., which he ran from an office in his home on West Forest Park Avenue. He had a Chevy pickup truck and often hired laborers from Baltimore's neighborhoods.

"He would go out and find the young guys who had dropped out of school. He gave them a job and encouraged them in the trade," said his sister Esther Champion of Baltimore.

Family members said Mr. Johnson was an advocate for African-Americans who sought admission to then-white trades unions. He sought, and won, minority contracts in the 1970s.

Mr. Johnson won a contract in the Gay Street Urban Renewal District in the mid-1970s. He built the foundations and walls of a cluster of rowhouses along Central Avenue near Eager Street.

"He was a fantastic worker who had a hearty sense of humor," said his brother, Aaron A. Johnson of Baltimore, who occasionally worked with him. "His work crews liked being on his jobs."

"He often would take clothes, blankets and food in his car, and looked for people who needed it. To help keep teen-agers off the street, he would often hire them to come work for him for the summer," said Elder Charles W. Harris, pastor of the Church of God and the Saints of Christ, where Mr. Johnson was a member.

"He pushed for people to go in business for themselves. He believed that by being your own boss, you could help others to take care of their families. He liked to spread around what he had, in terms of money and goods and the knowledge he had picked up throughout his life," Mr. Harris said.

After retiring about 15 years ago, Mr. Johnson traveled to Europe and the Caribbean several times. He also liked day trips to Atlantic City, N.J., meals in Little Italy and dancing.

Services will be held at the church at Ashland Avenue and Bond Street, which Mr. Johnson had helped renovate, but the date and time had not been determined yesterday.

In addition to his brother and sister, survivors include his son, Phillip I. Johnson Jr. of Cambridge, Mass.; a daughter, Phyllis J. Purnell of Baltimore; two other brothers, Seth Johnson and Enoch Johnson, both of Baltimore; two other sisters, Lucy Peebles of Newark, Del., and Rebecca Gilliam of Chesapeake, Va.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Julia Hardy, died in 1969. A son, Arthur Johnson, died in 1995.

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