But, he likes you
The story of Lewis Johnson
For all students interested the arts.
Transfer to the Booker T. Washington High School
for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Develop your talent and learn about careers in the arts.
See your Guidance Counselor.
Lewis Johnson was strutting down the hall at Madison High School. He was a slightly smaller than average kid who staying in South Dallas. He saw the flier during his freshman year. Something on that flier on the bulletin board by the Counselor’s office caught his eye. It was a call for auditions or portfolio interviews for the high school for the visual and performing arts. Lewis had some trouble concentrating on academics in school, but his personality got him through and kept him out of too much trouble. He got bored easily and thought this arts school might be an easier way to get through high school. He wanted to apply.
The arts school attracted two main types of students - those who had talent and the desire to better learn their craft and those who, for a variety of reasons, wanted to get out of their home school. Lewis was that one. Though he did like to draw. He didn’t get much help, advice, or support from either parent, so he met with the school Guidance Counselor at Madison. She was one of those people who truly wanted to help, especially those in need. She explained the arts school,
“Washington is a good school that will allow you to learn and practice drawing skills. I thin you’d enjoy it.”
She explained the application process and suggested how to neatly present some of his artwork. She guided him through the maze of questions and requirements and agreed to serve as a reference to his character. Lewis did manage to get a signature from each of his parents. His mom asked a few questions,
“Will it cost anything? Is it a good school? Do you wanna do it? Well, then, fine by me.”
The counselor submitted his application. His next step would be an in-person interview at Washington.
Lewis’ first interview
Lewis nervously waited in the hallway outside Classroom 204. Some chairs had been pulled out of the room and lined up along the row of lockers. It was pretty crazy - lots of nervous kids worried about where they would go to school next fall. Some had professional portfolio cases, others sat quietly, as if they had done this before. Lewis tightly held the yellow folder that contained some of his school art projects and some sketches he doodled when bored. He wanted to doodle right then on that blank canvas of the yellow folder. He liked how clean it looked, so he refrained. The longer he waited, the more anxious he became. He went through the doubting ‘What if’ questions in his mind.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Come on in.”
Lewis’ personality, smile, and positive attitude began to show from behind his self-doubts. He hadn’t had to talk to many people in a setting like this. He wasn’t quite sure what to do. But, he managed. He answered honestly. He shared his desires for the future. He laughed occasionally, enough to ease some tension.
A few weeks later in Social Studies at Madison, a student office worker stepped in the room and handed a pink note-sized form to the teacher. The teacher held on to the note until class ended. She caught Lewis as he was shuffling towards the door.
“Lewis, the guidance counselor would like you to see her.”
“What did I do?”
“This is from the Guidance Counselor, you’re probably not in any trouble.”
The bell rang and Lewis walked down to the main entrance and the suite of Staff offices. As soon as he stepped into the outer office, he saw a huge grin on the counselor’s otherwise serious face.
“Mr. Johnson, you have been accepted to enroll at Booker T. Washington. Congratulations.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Very good - it’s what you wanted. Washington is a good school that will allow you to learn more about drawing and the arts.”
He wasn’t quite sure how to respond. He had been accepted to the Booker T. Washington High School - with an emphasis on the arts, but more advanced classes. He did feel good about being accepted. That meant he had or did something that was impressive.
In 1892, Dallas established its first high school for African American pupils. In 1911, the school was enlarged and named the Dallas Colored High School. The school was moved in 1922 to larger quarters and renamed Booker T. Washington High School, after the African-American education pioneer. For many years, it was the only Dallas high school that allowed students of color. Alumni Ernie Banks, a Chicago Cub, was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The school was on the same street as the Moorland YMCA, opened in 1930, which provided sleeping rooms for African Americans who found limited hotel facilities elsewhere in the city. It was an important meeting place for those involved in the Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1976, the school was repurposed as the Arts Magnet, becoming a prototype for magnet schools across the country, as part of the Federal Court Desegregation Orders. The arts school required students to study foundations in each of the four disciplines: Music, Theater, Dance, and Visual Art. After their Freshman year, they would pick a discipline to specialize in. The name was changed to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts.
Lewis asked the Madison counselor for a tardy slip for his next class. He felt different walking down the hall. A bit prouder, more confident, and more scared.
Lewis often felt overshadowed by his older brother and his sister. Brother, Philip (everyone called him Corky) Johnson, was smart, and driven to succeed. Caroline, his sister, excelled in high school. She participated in extracurricular actives, partly as a reason to stay away from home. Lewis wanted the success and respect each sibling had achieved.
Letitia Johnson, Lewis’ mom, worked two jobs: a Domestic and a Hotel maid, where she worked up to Shift Leader and Supervisor. She had worked at least two jobs for as long as Lewis could remember. When she was home, she was likely sleeping. Her kids learned to make or find their own meals. At least one of her four children were staying with her at any time. Some nights Lewis stayed with his mother; other nights with his father. Lewis sometimes got tired of Dad’s rants. He would sneak out and walk or, if lucky, bum a ride over to his moms apartment, about a half mile away. But, he didn’t know or didn’t understand what Dad had gone through.
Dad, Dallas Cowboys fan
Lewis called his father, Dad. That’s all he had heard people say. Dad was Mr. Johnson or Johnny at work. He wanted that name to stay at work, so he enjoyed the moniker Dad at home. He owned a dump truck. He kept busy driving demolition debris from construction sites to various dump sites. Dad liked his job okay. For the most part, he was left alone; he knew what to do. Truck drivers were hard to come by. If not, his Foreman would likely have fired him. Nathan Baker, Job Foreman of Quality Construction, grew up in a religious Baptist household with very conservative values. Nathan was not afraid to tell people that his way is always right. America had changed from the one he enjoyed in the late 1950s. He blamed the ‘Coloreds’ for making his job and life a little more trying. He had been fired from two previous companies for insubordination. There was an aura of hatred that enveloped him and his words, actions, and movements.
Today, he’d be considered a white supremacist. Back then, he was just mean. There was no Confederate flag on his truck nor any stickers at all. This was probably the truck that he drove to church. Baker had unfairly chastised Johnson for being slow and for an error he made several years ago that cost the company money. Dad mumbled under his breath, but was wise and experienced enough to not let his boss hear or see him mumble. An investigation within the company was launched to determine the source of the money error. Dad was found not guilty and, as discovered, had even tried to correct the error while it was happening. Baker still blamed him.
Dad used to work at the GM Auto Assembly plant, soon after it opened in the 1950s. The plant He worked on a line that was integrated, even though much of the plant was still segregated. Once about halfway through his shift, he was summoned to see the supervisor in a tiny little office nearby on the factory floor.
“Your mom has been taken to the hospital.”
Dad gasped. The supervisor said he could leave work early if he wished. He did wish for that. He walked alone to the bus stop from Employee Entrance Number 4. In the lot, three guys were hanging out at their cars, drinking, and laughing. Dad, worried and deeply concerned about his mom and his brothers, walked by them. Normally Dad avoided drunk white guys, but this time he wasn’t concerned about them. Until they interrupted his thoughts with slurs, threats, and jabs to his chest. Dad knew better than to fight back. But that made him feel weak and ashamed. He finally was able to get away from the guys and jog to the bus stop. No one followed.
He felt firsthand, the hatred others had for him because of his skin color. That traumatic experience stayed with Dad, but he repressed his hatred and desire for revenge. The adult bullying from Foreman Baker rekindled that, made it flare up in him again.
Sometimes, during Dad’s drive home from work, some of the bitterness spilled over into his driving. He addressed Baker’s hatred by avoiding white people and acting cordial and polite when necessary. Dad’s lifetime of facing personal and systemic discrimination and, now, the animosity from his boss, drove him to quietly withdraw. Among his family and his crew friends, he was very open about his hatred of white folk.
Dad had saved when he could and now owns his own truck. After rent, gas, and food, the truck payments didn’t leave much money for furnishings and entertainment. He was an avid Dallas Cowboys fan - that was his entertainment. When the season ended, he withdrew into his driving and his beer.
He loved his children but didn’t like taking care of them. No financial support for any of his kids. He had four - two daughters and two sons. Named with common American names. Dad and his wife Letitia had decided, early on in their marriage, that their kids would have to overcome enough obstacles, they didn’t want their name to be one of them.
Robert Thomas and the horrible noise
The explosive noise coming from the back of his car was startling and ominous. Robert was driving a Volkswagen van on a rural interstate; the engine was in the rear. Fortunately, he could see the next exit. Fortunate since the loud clunking noise was still announcing its plea for help. Moving into the right lane, he eased off the freeway onto the service road. Within just a few yards, about the length of a McDonald's, stood a Nickerson Farms. This was a highway roadside chain much like Stuckey's: a cafe, gas pumps, and store. There was no car repair bay, but he figured he could still find help there. Besides, there was nothing else around. The van coasted into the lot and he parked in an empty area not too far from the front door of the restaurant. Rob turned off the rattling engine and it shuddered to silence. This was on I-35, about an hour north of Austin where he had spent a busy weekend visiting friends from college. He was on his way north, back to Dallas.
Rob went on inside the Nick, through the gift shop just inside the front door and up to the cashier counter. The cashier was not able to leave that post and offered no real help. She was quite young, possibly a local high school kid earning some spending money and a few bucks for community college. He stepped into the restaurant, where most of the patrons, although there were not that many at around 8:00 at night, sat in booths that lined the parallel walls. He politely interrupted and asked if anyone could give him a ride to the bus station in town, just a mile or two down the side road. The first couple, hardened farmer or rancher type with his lovely obedient wife, refused, saying they were heading back in the other direction after dinner. That's fine, there were other people to ask. The next couple was a young couple, maybe early 20s, who had just finished eating dinner. They said they'd be glad to help and they knew exactly where the bus station was, at the Georgetown Cafe, right on the main road. Rob told them he'd go check on the car and then wait in the gift shop. He had just begun trying to solve one of the bent nail brain teasers, two interlocked nails that you have to maneuver apart, when they came in and paid for their meal.
They swapped introductions and headed out to the couple’s car, a light colored Ford pickup that had recently been hard at work. There was mud caked along the bottom edge of the doors and the inside served as a catchall for food wrappers, cups, and tools. The woman sheepishly cleared some space on the seat. There had been room for two, she now moved some of the clutter to make room for three. It was snug but not uncomfortable. Rob didn't care - he was so appreciative of getting a ride. Usually, when his car broke down, and it often did, he’d get a bit stressed. He had never quite learned how to take care of cars and they intimidated him slightly. Big dangerous machine versus a pacifist city boy. He didn't understand exactly how the machine makes the car go and he couldn't translate a noise to a symptom. But this time, even though it was a horrible noise that should have frightened him, he was at peace. Somehow, he just knew he could take care of this and it would work out fine. There was an inexplicable foreboding of something ahead. Something big. He had no idea what, but he could sense it.
After driving just a few blocks, the pickup eased into a vacant row of parking spaces in front of a combination general store, cafe, and bus station. The only person visible inside was one employee mopping the floor behind the counter. Rob thanked that nice young couple and jumped down to the worn asphalt pavement and on in to the store. Immediately he was aware of the television; It was in the front of the store, facing a few tables that served as both dining and waiting.
“Ted and the Kid,” Episode 144
Lou Grant, Murray, Georgette, Ted Baxter, and The Happy Homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens. Rob turned and stared at the sitcom for a minute, one of his favorite shows. Then remembered what he was there for and walked back to the counter. This counter was a gallery exhibit itself. Old postcards were under the glass top, business cards, some yellowed and faded, miscellaneous photos, a calendar that was of a year that now rendered it useless, and a menu or two. He introduced himself, bought a bus ticket, and picked through some of the souvenir-quality stuff as he made his way back to Mary Tyler Moore. Poor Ted Baxter, just a beat or two behind the rest of the universe, But Sue Ann, Betty White, was delightful.
The mopper had finished and was turning out the lights in the back. And then in the front. Illuminated by just the animated glow from the television and the street light out front, he mentioned that it was closing time, but, since the bus was late, he would stay a few minutes and watch the television with Rob. That made Rob a little uncomfortable - he was sure the guy had worked all day and was eager to get home. Mary and the gang made them both laugh, so Rob felt better. Before the sitcom resolved its weekly dilemma, the lights of the big bus streamed into the store with the gasp of the brakes. Through the large plate glass window, Rob waved to the bus driver and turned and thanked the mopper profusely. He stepped out and a few steps to the waiting bus. He heard the sound of the bus door swinging open mixed with the click of the store door locking behind him.
He stepped on up, handed the driver his fresh ticket, and quietly walked down the aisle. The bus was dark except for a few aisle lights that had not yet burned out. Most of the other passengers, the ones he could see, were slumped in a variety of sleep poses. Rob found a pair of empty seats about halfway back on the right. The bus was only about a quarter full. He settled into his seat as the bus lurched out onto the calm and quiet Georgetown road. For the first time since that horrible noise, Rob had time to relax and take stock of his situation. He looked out the window at the moonlit Texas farmland and smiled. It was quiet and peaceful. There was that feeling again: something big was about to happen. Not sure what, but a change was coming. He just felt it. He had never sensed anything this strong before. Like he was connected to the future and It was telling him that everything was going to be okay, even good. Just relax. But, his car is busted and he’s a hundred miles from home. Relax. Okay. He gave in and enjoyed the ride.
Rob dozed a little bit, in that iffy state between awake and a nap. The click-clack of the tires over the pavement section cracks was soothing in its regularity. He perked up as the bus eased into Waco for a short rest stop and bathroom break. He called his parents to explain his plight and asked them to pick him up at the Greyhound station in Dallas in about an hour. Of course they would.
“Greyhound bus #455 to Dallas is now boarding. Please make your way to the bus.”
The announcement interrupted the call - it was time to reboard. Back to the Interstate and the mesmerizing beat of the open road. They exited and pulled into downtown Dallas. This bus station was alive and brightly lit. Rob went on outside to wait on the sidewalk.
Back at his childhood home, he went right to sleep. He had explained all the details during the drive from the station to his parent’s house. He had no reason to go to his own apartment since he had no car and would just be stuck there. After breakfast with his parents, he borrowed his dad's car, and drove to east Dallas, the Fair Park area, to have a rented trailer hitch installed. He put the attachment bar in the trunk and drove back down I35. A break in Waco was at an AYCE pizza buffet. Got to Nickerson Farms in the early afternoon and hitched up the VW bus to the car and went inside to thank the Nickerson Farms people. Of course, it was a different crew and they were somewhat oblivious to and confused by his gratitude.
Rob stopped in Waco again. This time on the northbound side. He had gotten comfortable with towing a car but still didn't want to have to maneuver city streets too much. So, he just stopped at a place right on the service road.
Towards downtown Dallas there was not too much traffic coming into the city from the south. But downtown was jammed. Rob realized he didn't want to drive up Central Expressway, notorious for traffic jams, slowdowns, and aggressive drivers. So, he exited in downtown and remembered reading about the Washington Arts High School. He maneuvered through the traffic to the northeast corner of downtown and parked in an almost-empty lot behind the school. Wanting to wait for the traffic to subside, he wandered in through the double doors. The aroma of high school was unmistakable - cleaning fluid, lockers, cafeteria food. He suddenly stopped. He froze.
“Oh my God. I want to, no, I will be a teacher.”
The feeling that overtook him and washed through his being was so clear - he was going to be a teacher. He'll probably never know what it was exactly that caused that feeling. He later suspected that these thoughts had been swirling around in his unconscious. Teaching wasn’t completely new to him - he had been a trainer at a restaurant and was the pledge trainer at his college fraternity. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he had already explored the notion of identifying himself as a teacher. But, in that doorway, it came rushing up and out. It screamed at him. It was so clear. He just knew. Well, that changed everything.
How do I become a teacher?
Slightly excited and confident about the revelation, he took a few steps into the hallway and then into a wider section that he later learned was the foyer to the school theater. On the directory mounted on the wall - that kind with the white plastic letters with tabs that stick into the folds of the fuzzy black backboard with a metal locking frame and glass front. Rob recognized a name, Mabel Keel, Director of the Art Cluster. Ms. Keel worked in the office at Rob’s High school. He wasn’t real sure what her title there was but she appeared to him as a teenager to be someone who was in charge of the school office. She was now his connection to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts - where he now stood, in the school smell and on the school linoleum tile and surrounded by the institutional tan/green wall color.
The next morning, Rob called the High School and asked to speak with Ms. Keel. He began peppering her with the questions he had composed the night before:
“What are the qualifications I would need to teach?
“How do I break into the profession?
“Are there any openings at the arts high school?”
Rob discovered he would need a Master's degree and a Teaching Certificate to teach in a public school and there were no faculty openings, but he could be a teacher's aide.
Well, poo. He had dropped out of college and now he had to go back for another degree? Rob wasn't particularly committed to studying while at college in Austin a few years earlier. He was only a few courses shy of finishing his degree in Design at the University of Texas. He called the UT registrar and had them check his transcript - yep, he still needed 2 classes - an Advertising Design course and his final semester of Spanish. Muy bien, sólo dos. Only two classes. He prepared to return to Austin for one final semester to complete his degree.
Before he could leave for Austin, he got a call from Lois Miller, Director of the Theater Cluster,
"We sure could use some help with the class in set design.”
They were between teachers. He agreed to pitch in. He showed up the next Monday to help an adjunct teacher who had too much to handle. While Rob had not taught in a classroom before, he recalled the good art teachers he had in high school. He walked among the students and helped them with their assignments. He decided then, that instead of telling students how to do something, he would give them the necessary info and assignment specs, and encourage them to figure out a way to solve the given problem. He loved teaching, though he didn't quite understand it - he had never worked in a school classroom before. It was one of those things that just feels right. He belonged there. In that classroom. Right then.
Mr. Thomas and his first teaching gig
As he drove down I-35 back to Austin, he felt different - he was eager to go back to school. A purpose was now much clearer to him. He was going to be a school teacher. A couple of hours into the trip, he passed through Georgetown and the Nickerson Farms to the left, off the service road. He laughed out loud and waved and honked.
While In Austin, Rob answered another call from Ms. Miller, asking him to teach full time, starting in the fall. Rob realized he would have to work to pay for the upcoming Graduate School and this teaching job would look good on his resume. Rob wasn’t planning on teaching at a high school, but this job was put in his lap and he loved those few months being in the classroom as an aide. He earned his degree and that summer, prepared to begin a career in teaching.
The first faculty meeting at Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts was both exciting and a bit scary. Robert felt unprepared because he was. The school was in need of teachers and hired Rob with an Emergency Teaching Certificate. To continue teaching, he would have to submit a transcript that showed he was enrolled in at least 6 hours of courses that would apply to earning a Texas Teaching Certificate. So, when he began teaching, he had not taken any courses in Education. But, he loved the direction his life was taking. He had been waiting tables and had worked his way up to Trainer, but never felt the restaurant business was for him. It was a job to do while searching for a career passion. His acceptance that teaching was his passion gave him the confidence to attend the first faculty meeting with a room full of strangers more experienced than he was. He paid attention to the announcements and preparations for the year. He may have stuck out like the newbie that he was, but he didn’t care about that.
The following Monday was Back to School day. Rob was there early, doing final preps on handouts and putting his name on the board. He didn’t have a class the first period - the students were all in Homeroom. The bell rang, signaling the beginning of Rob’s career as a classroom teacher. It was in that moment that Rob felt most alive and most confident of his abilities. It was in that moment that Rob’s life changed forever.
He was part of one of the most important jobs in a progressive society - tickling the neurons in the minds of young people to become better thinkers, better creative problem solvers. He loved participating in the forging of a stronger future for humankind.
Mr. Thomas, Ms. Patton, and Ms. Richards
To help enhance his familiarity with the school, expand his comfort with teaching, and alleviate some of his anxiety about being thrust into the role of teacher, he sought help and advice from Ms. Miller, his supervisor and the one who had hired him. In addition, he made friends with a drawing instructor named George; a science teacher, Tom; and Scott, a former hippie, now avant-garde English teacher. The students loved them and their classes. One of Rob’s teacher guides shared with him the common name of the school. Instead of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual & Performing Arts, students affectionately and respectfully refer to the school simply as Booker T.
Rob was relieved; that was so much easier to say. He remembered Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs from 1962, but he doubted these students had that in mind - the MGs keyboard player was Booker T. Jones. But, maybe.
Robert had been drawn to another teacher that was also outgoing, empathetic, and considerate of other people. Margaret Patton was the ceramics teacher at the school. She also taught one class in Art History. Her best friend, Liz, was also a teacher, but at a different school. Liz outside of the classroom and Ms. Richards in class.
The two of them took advantage of the teacher lifestyle by traveling extensively during much of the summer. Peggy specialized in Art History and reveled in the museums and architecture of Rome, Milan, Florence, Madrid, Paris, and much of the rest of Europe. Her enthusiasm was infectious, Liz grew to be just as fascinated. They made a wonderful couple - outgoing and adventurous. They had a wide circle of friends, mostly women and mostly teachers.
Margaret, who was familiarly known as Peggy, loved her students. She was very giving and would spend money to help her kids with food, clothing, field trip fees, and however she felt she could help. These money transactions were conducted in private away from the other students; her ceramics classroom had a smaller work area where the senior artists would work. Peggy became a mentor to Rob. She was quite comfortable and at ease with the downsides of teaching: meetings, paperwork, discipline rules, and the school district politics. She helped Rob overcome the heavy cloud of administration that hung over new teacher’s heads. She had learned, years ago, to not take any of that too seriously. Focus on the kids. The young minds.
The student that stood out from the rest
In the early 1980s, Peggy entered her Freshman Sculpture classroom on the first day and as she scanned the room and took roll, one student’s smile and demeanor caught her eye. Robert met Lewis in his Intro to Drawing class. He had great enthusiasm. A certain sparkle, humor, and a great smile. A face that says, “Hey, I'm okay. No fear. No threat. Just me. Come on in.”
Teachers look for the special attributes in students and when they find one they often latch onto them - it is those students that make help make the job of teaching more rewarding. The student’s interest, attitude, and talent encourage and motivate teachers to push themselves.
There was just something about this one student that intrigued Robert. Lewis had such a confident joy of life. A small kid living with either parent, one at a time. Facing tough odds but he had such energy and zest for life.
Robert finally felt he had a job that he loved - helping young people become better thinkers, with employable skills, and helping prepare them, mostly students of color, for success in life. Many of his students came from single-parent homes. On Friday’s, Mr. Thomas would sit with the students in a circle on the floor. This was an arts school; the students were used to sitting on the floor for breathing exercises, small group discussions, and movement classes. He created an environment in which students felt they could share, without judgment. And Rob was pleasantly surprised at how deep some of the students went with their sharing. Common issues were home life, fear of the future, becoming young adults, their own self-awareness, and pressure from peers, school, and authority figures.
One of the most painful experiences, according to several of the students at the Friday talks, was divorce that separated their parents. Some felt responsible. Some felt so alone. So frightened. Teenage school life is tough enough without layering on such a major disruption in their home life. Lewis was one of these. He had put up such a tough veneer, as had many students, that it took a few weeks before he felt ready to share his own divorce experiences. He shared that he didn't live anywhere. He stayed - some nights with Dad and some nights with his mom. He was no longer very close to either parent. His older siblings seemed to be handling better than he was, but that just added to his feeling of aloneness. For Mr. Thomas, one of the sobering moments was seeing how empathetic the other students were. Lewis was comforted. Tears welled in his eyes. Several students cried during their shares or while listening to others. But, for Lewis, smiling, strong Lewis, to shed his inhibitions enough to open up his wounds and let his classmates help with the healing. It was a phenomenal moment.
Rob counseled students, provided a comforting ear, and taught informal driving lessons in the school parking lot after hours. Robert soon learned there was a strong need for male role-models. And he found it tremendously satisfying and rewarding to serve in that role. Robert would often take Lewis for a snack after school, and then home. His mom lived in East Dallas; Dad lived in South Dallas. Rob had been in Dad’s neighborhood before.
Growing up in north Dallas, his family had domestic help, a maid named Fannie, who came to the house about twice a week. She became like a part of their family. She had a son, named James, who was Rob’s age. Rob’s mother suggested that he go home with Fannie and spend the night at their house so the two boys could play. Mom had worked out the details with Fannie beforehand.
That night, they had some of Fannie's excellent cooking. After dinner (the days were long) Rob and James played outside until dark. It was a fun sleepover. Rob’s mother never coached him or cautioned him that he was going to south Dallas into a black neighborhood. She proposed and positioned it simply as two kids playing together for an evening. It was a good lesson on what makes us more similar than different.
That visit made an impact on Rob,
“What is all the fuss about? These are people just like me.
“Why did white people feel threatened by Negroes (a common term in the 1950s).”
He never witnessed any racial violence or any overt racial hatred. His parent’s household didn’t participate in discrimination. His parents were born and raised in Madison Wisconsin, a more open and accepting community, and had gone to the University there. Rob did remember that, in a small triangular block in downtown Dallas, there were some public restrooms. He later learned that they were for whites only, as indicated by signs. That was all gone when Rob went downtown to go to a movie or shop with his mom. To get downtown, Rob and his friends often rode the bus. It picked them up at the end of the street and went straight down Preston Road, along the route of a cattle trail - Preston Trail - that went up to the Red River, ending at the town of Preston. The site of the town is now under the waters of Lake Texoma. Riding the bus, the kids would sometimes sit in the very back row - it was elevated and swayed differently from the front. Of course, they could sit wherever they wanted. As Rob wisened with age, he realized anyone could legally sit wherever they wanted, but some wouldn’t sit up front, maybe due to years of habit, or a still lingering fear. As a naive kid, the skin color rules just didn’t make sense.
Sometimes, Rob and Lewis would stop and get a soda, other times, they’d drive around just looking at neighborhoods and buildings. They would talk most of that drive time. Rob learned more about Lewis’ parents and his siblings - one brother and two sisters. One sister had graduated and was quite successful in her job and with her boyfriend. One brother, Corky, had gone on to college. The other sister and Lewis struggled with school.
Lewis sometimes referred to an area of South Dallas called Bonton. It was a ‘bad’ part of town. Bonbon was built in a flood plain, so the property was cheap. More poverty, more anger, more hatred. But, the more Lewis described it, the more intrigued Robert became - he really wanted to drive through Bonbon and see for himself.
“No, you can’t go to Bonton. It’s bad. You’ll get hurt. I don’t even go there.”
They didn’t go see Bonton.
One summer, Rob and Lewis were driving up the Expressway to Peggy’s house. It was summer in Dallas. It was very hot. As they eased up the exit ramp at Mockingbird, both noticed the stalled car in the exit lane with one guy trying to push it up the incline towards a parking lot. There was room for Rob to drive around the car. And he might have. But, before he could even finish routing that path in his mind, Lewis said, “Stop the car.” Rob slowed down. Lewis swung his door open and jumped out. He went right up to the trunk of the stalled car and began pushing that car up the ramp. Rob, seeing the traffic behind him, drove around the car, pulled into the adjacent parking lot, and parked the car. He went back to help as Lewis and the driver just about had the car ready to turn into the lot. Rob realized there was no hesitation or discussion from Lewis. He just did it. That was Lewis: If he can help, he will.
My dad hates White people
Another time when Robert drove Lewis home. He pointed to a house coming up and said,
“Stop at that house.”
Rob thought Lewis lived where they had stopped and started to drive off. But, he looked in the rearview mirror and saw Lewis walking down the street away from where Rob had let him out. Rob was a bit confused, he realized that wasn’t his dad’s house. The way Lewis had described Dad had piqued his curiosity and he hoped to meet him someday.
On a later trip, Robert told Lewis that he would take him on to his Dad’s home. Lewis got very animated,
“No! He doesn’t like white people.”
After another trip or two, Rob insisted.
“I’m gonna take you all the way home. I want to meet your father.”
Lewis adamantly protested,
“No, no you can’t.”
“You just can’t, stop and let me out here.”
Robert kept driving.
“Lewis, sometime I’m going to meet your father. I’d like to do it now while we’re here.”
“My dad really does hate white people. He’ll hurt you. He hates them.”
“Well let me just find out.”
“It’s a mistake, don’t go in there.”
“You can go in with me, if you want.”
“I’m gonna wait in the car.”
Dad kept his truck in the driveway beside the four room white frame house. There was little landscaping, but there were some large trees in the older neighborhood. Many of the houses had bars on the doors and windows, but they were neat with well maintained yards.
Robert, parked at the curb, stepped out and rounded the car. He noticed Lewis’ eyes following him. He turned towards the front door. The outer door of burglar bars was open and flat against the wall to the right of the door. An empty, but clean porch beckoned Robert up. At the door, Robert did not turn around to see what Lewis might be doing. Seeing no doorbell, Rob knocked with a firm but non-threatening manner. A few seconds later, a slightly stocky man opened the door.
“Hi, Mr. Johnson, my name is Robert Thomas. I am one of Lewis’s teachers.”
“Come on in.”
The two men visit
Lewis sat in the car just thinking and dreaming and wishing. Twenty minutes passed and he still heard nothing from the house. He was starting to get worried. He was about to open the door and go check on his teacher, but just then the house door creaked open and Robert stepped out and walked towards the car. He seemed unhurt. Lewis was feeling quite uneasy. He said,
Rob got back in the car.
“Your dad is a nice man, we had a good talk.”
“Nuh, uh. What happened.”
Dad’s house was so empty, it was stark. The main room had a folding card table and two chairs. That was it. Canned food and soup sat firmly in an open cabinet in the adjacent kitchen; a used saucepan on the stove. A Cowboys poster and giveaway beer promo posters were the only art on the walls. There was one other piece - artwork done by one of his four children, Lewis. He wasn’t really close to any of the kids since the divorce, but he did think of them often and did like to keep up with what they were doing.
So, he invited Mr. Thomas to have a seat, which he did. Seeing the Dallas Cowboys gave Rob a connection to kick off a conversation. There was a game coming up and they shared predictions, complaints, and desires for the team. They also laughed, which helped ease any tension in the room. And seemed to give them a connection. Two guys shooting the breeze and laughing together.
“Sir, you wanna beer?”
Dad went to the refrigerator. That gave time for Rob to look around. He was curious where the kids slept when they stayed with him. Peering into one bedroom, he saw that it was neat and clean. Dad returned and sat down. They spent some time talking about his job. Much of their time was spent on another connection - Dad’s son, Lewis. Dad seemed to be a cordial, caring working man. Connecting with Lewis and his dad helped Robert better understand the toll that years of oppression and hatred can have on a person. But, as Booker T. Washington said in 1901, “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”
Mr. Thomas was probably one of the few, white people that had been in that house and, likely, the only one for a social call. He was still skeptical. Lewis knew his dad hated white people.
“Lewis, it was just two men talking. He’s a good guy.”
Lewis quietly got out of the car and went into the house. Rob drove home.
The next day in school, Lewis went up to Robert in the hallway outside the cafeteria,
“My dad hates white people.
He likes you.
But, he hates white people”
Robert stifled a brief victory smile.
“I liked your dad, also.”
Lewis and Peggy & Liz
Liz was certainly a caring woman - as she was a popular and successful teacher at a prestigious private boy’s school. Like all good teachers, her students became her kids. She followed their growth after graduation and enjoyed talking with them when they would check in with her. She found in Peggy a companion, a comrade, and a travel partner.
Even though they lived together and Peggy had brought Lewis home for lunch, Liz didn’t have the same emotional connection to Lewis, so Peggy did most of Lewis’ mentoring on her own. She hired Lewis do all of the yard work: mowing, edging, and raking. She also had him do odd jobs and chores around the house. Peggy bought Lewis clothes and provided plenty of home-cooked food. Dad accused Lewis of trying to be a white kid. It probably was tough for Lewis, to stay in a nice well-furnished home in a safe neighborhood, but still have his friends at school.
It was around this time that Robert was patiently teaching Lewis how to drive. They would practice in the school parking lot and in church lots closer to Lewis’ neighborhood. Rob never asked why Lewis’ own dad hadn’t taught him how to drive, he was just glad for the opportunity and the bonding.
Lewis was an eager student driver, but a bit impatient. He was sharp and mechanically inclined, so the nuances came to him rather quickly. Soon, Rob let Lewis get behind the wheel. The amount of trust a driving instructor has to put in his neophyte students made Rob a little uncomfortable. When they were practicing turns in the school lot, Rob emphasized checking the mirrors, looking at blind spots, and using the turn signal. In his eagerness and anxiety over so many tasks to perform, Lewis accidentally thrust his hand down on the turn signal so hard, the shaft broke out of the steering column.
At Peggy’s house, Lewis, with Rob’s guidance and instruction, remodeled some overhead cabinets that hung between the kitchen and the family room. They blocked the view. Peggy loved to chat with guests and family while she and Liz were cooking. She had to keep ducking her head to see under the cabinets. So, they carefully took them down, carefully so the finish, the internal structure, and the hardware remained in good condition. The cabinets were put to new uses - a single cabinet went up next to the sink by the window. It completed the symmetry, now there were upper cabinets on either side of the sink. The triple unit was installed on the wall in the adjacent laundry room, providing much needed storage. They left the cabinet that shrouded the exhaust vent for the fan over the stove. On both sides of that, in the void where the cabinets used to hang, they mounted wire shelves. Brackets in the stove vent cabinet and some hanging chains supported the open ends of the shelves. There was room for glasses and plates, but these shelves did not hang down as low as the wooden cabinets.
Hamburgers for Nana
Peggy’s mom, Nana, lived with her. Peggy was her mom’s caretaker and Nana’s lifeline to the world outside of her bedroom and the living room. Nana had raised two children, lost her husband, and now was content to watch television. Her pastime was instructing the people onscreen what to say, which vowel to buy, and how best to dress. She called out her questions to Jeopardy so loud, one might think she was trying to reach the contestant. She loved Alex.
A few years after Peggy met Lewis, Nana passed away. Peggy was as mentally prepared as a daughter could be. It was a painless death. While grieving, Lewis provided much needed support. He helped Peggy get through the worst of her loss.
Peggy’s doctor had told her that Peggy had to restrict her mom’s diet due to her high cholesterol and her diabetes. Peggy, regretfully shared with Lewis,
"I wish I had let her eat what she wanted. I wish I hadn't restricted her. She loved hamburgers.”
Lewis quietly replied,
“She had them.”
Lewis had snuck out periodically to go to the store to get hamburgers for Nana.
Once the house was cleared of Nana’s personal effects and the considerate casseroles that lined the kitchen counter, Peggy and Lewis repainted Nana’s room. Peggy let Lewis pick the color. When they were finished and had rearranged the furniture, the two of them admired their work, and enjoyed the new space. While standing in the refreshed room, Peggy invited Lewis to move in with her and Liz. It would provide a more stable environment for Lewis. Her offer of free room & board included the stipulation that Lewis would have additional chores in the house and yard. Lewis would also run errands for Peggy & Liz. Lewis readily accepted and hugged his friend, Peggy. Liz had prepared dinner for the three of them. They celebrated Lewis’ new chapter in his life - living away from both parents.
Rob & Peggy had been encouraging Lewis to operate a lawn care business. Seemed like a good fit - Lewis could pick his own clients, control his hours, and be working outdoors. Wanda would let him use her mower and car to get to jobs. When Lewis was about to turn 19, one of his former teachers at Madison hosted Robert & Peggy at a birthday party at his house. Robert gave Lewis a weed-whacker. Lewis was overwhelmed - he had never gotten so many presents before. He seemed embarrassed. But, he sure loved tearing into his presents.
The King of Pop
After a couple of summers of yard work, Lewis surprised Robert with a ticket to see the Jacksons at Texas Stadium. Rob was hesitant to accept due to the high price Lewis paid for the ticket. It was something Lewis wanted to do and it was a very kind gesture. Rob gratefully accepted the ticket. He was a Michael Jackson fan. The concert was billed as the Victory tour, after an album by the Jacksons. But, many called it the Thriller tour since that album by Michael was the current rage. With choreography by Paula Abdul, the concert showcased Michael's single decorated glove, black sequined jacket, and moonwalk. Lewis’ brother, Corky, and a friend of his went with Lewis and Mr. Thomas, who drove the four.
Emmanuel Lewis (Webster) was in the audience. Eddie Van Halen played the 'Beat It' guitar solo - the next night, his band, Van Halen, was to play in Dallas. The MJ concert was a phenomenal experience. The excitement of a popular band, 60,000 fans, and a great entertainer.
The lawn care business was not earning Lewis enough money to live on his own and buy the things he needed and wanted. Peggy got Lewis accepted into Job Corps, so he could learn a trade. Job Corps, a Department of Labor program that offers free education and vocational training to young men and women, had an opening in San Marcos, about 3.5 hours south of Dallas. Lewis did most of the driving when he and Peggy went to get him settled on the Job Corps campus. Lewis had a good mechanical and electrical mind. He enrolled into the Electrical program. Lewis started with his typical energy and enthusiasm. But, also typical, he bored easily and was distracted. He also missed his family and friends in Dallas.
About seven years after Lewis and Mr. Thomas met, Robert took a teaching job at a University out of state. He kept up with Lewis through Peggy and on visits back to Dallas. Robert could tell that things had soured a little between he and Lewis and between Lewis and Peggy. Maybe Lewis was uncomfortable that he hadn’t met his good friends’ expectations. Robert wondered if he should have searched harder for ways to give Lewis more help. They were just two teachers befriending a student - but they had to finally realize Lewis didn’t quite hold onto the spark and energy that they originally saw.
During a phone call with Peggy, Rob learned that Lewis had gotten a girl pregnant. Peggy had reached her limit of tolerance. She told him he could visit anytime, but that he must move out of her house. Lewis moved in with the girl. They had another child. Soon after, they got married. Lewis was thrust into the role of husband, father, and breadwinner. His world was closing in on him. No great career prospects, little money, few friends.
Often, without doing much, people just slip out of one’s life - they wander away from each other, down their own paths. They may remember them periodically but they don’t have much contact. That happened with Mr. Thomas and Lewis.
Robert tried to track down Lewis. He still held a place in Rob’s heart and thoughts - he only wanted the best for him. He drove to Corky’s martial arts studio. Corky recognized Rob and smiled (that was his nature). Rob asked about his family. He told Corky that he was excited to see Lewis and to, hopefully, rekindle their friendship. He asked Corky how to contact Lewis. He didn’t get the info. At age 27, Lewis Johnson had been killed helping with a botched robbery attempt.
After officially obtaining his Teaching Certificate in Drama and Art, Robert continued his education, earning a Master’s degree and a PhD from the University of North Texas. After two years at Booker T. Washington, he taught Design at a Community College in a Dallas suburb, and then Dr. Thomas reached his goal of becoming a university Professor.
Margaret and Elizabeth, Peggy & Liz, married as soon as it became legal to do so. Their destination wedding was in New York City. They celebrated there, on the plane, and back in Dallas. Each has since died. Just eight months apart.
Corky Johnson, Lewis’ brother, mastered several martial arts disciplines and was a 4th Rank Black Belt. He owns and operates the Bonton School for Martial Arts, teaching group classes, private lessons, and at a Community College. The studio is in a middle class predominantly white part of town. A graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Banking and Finance, he was a Texas State Champion and National Quarter Finalist in Taekwondo.
Caroline Preston, his sister, earned several academic scholarships and studied education. She began student teaching in her senior year. With her BA in Education, she took a break to earn a Teaching Certificate and a Master’s degree. She worked her way through the public school system, and was the Principal of Josephine Houston Elementary in Southeast Dallas. She married Earl Preston after teaching for a few years. She loved her career, the kids, and the satisfaction of reaching young people and helping to open their eyes.
The Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts was a success, almost from the beginning. It built relationships with professional companies in Dallas and students were fortunate to have numerous professional guest speakers and teachers. Edie Brickell, Roy Hargrove, Erykah Badu, and Norah Jones were some of the alumni from the school.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre became the owner of the historic Moorland YMCA in 1999. The neighborhood surrounding Moorland and Booker T. Washington has evolved into the Dallas Arts District, one of the largest such districts in the country. In 2008, the Washington school building was enlarged a third time when a new $65 million facility was completed. The expansion preserved the historic main building, which, in 2006, had been designated an official Dallas Landmark.
Neither Robert nor Peggy had heard about the death of Lewis Johnson in time to pay their respects. There was no service. No obituary. The kid with the zest for life and who was always willing to help, died suddenly and violently, his body lying alone on the streets of South Dallas.
© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2022