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Shepherd Manson B. Johnson, Jr.

By: Rebecca S. Jones

HOUSTON – Inferences from biblical teachings suggest that, the number forty represents a period of testing, trial or probation and are also reflective of a generation of a man. The life of Moses was broken down into three-increments of 40-year periods; he lived in Egypt for forty years; survived in the desert forty years and led the children of Israel for forty years. Furthermore, he dwelt on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights and dispatched spies to the Promised Land for forty days. There remain many other significant references of the number forty in Biblical literature such as: Jonah prophetically admonishing Nineveh of their forty day destruction, induced by sin; Elijah fasted for 40 days at Mt. Horeb; Jesus Christ, also fasted for forty days and nights, upon being led in the wilderness to be tempted by the devil and Jesus appeared to his disciples and followers for forty days, after his crucifixion and resurrection. Needless to state, the number 40 has held a significant place in the life of courageous leaders since the beginning of time. Such is the case of Shepherd Manson B. Johnson, Jr. (Holman Street Baptist Church), one who has faithfully served and demonstrated forty years of excellence in leadership within Houston’s historic Third Ward community and onward.

            On January 18, the Holman Street Baptist Church will host its 40th Anniversary Gala for Shepherd Manson B. Johnson, Jr. The event will take place at the Ballroom at Bayou Place located at 560 Texas Ave., 77002, commencing at 6:00 pm. Destined to Stay on Top, the church will “Celebrate 40 years of Commitment, Sacrifice and Service to the Community”. For more information or details, contact Kelly P. Hodges at (832) 865-4722. African-American News & Issues has also chosen to honor this esteemed and influential force within our community in this edition. Read on to preview the recent exclusive interview with the Shepherd.

I believe that who I am, as everybody is comes out of where they come from. That can be physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually. The environment of where a person is raised has a lot to do with where they are going and where they end up.” – Shepherd Manson B. Johnson, Jr.

Framing and Background

Manson, Jr. was born in Nashville, TN and reared into an educational and Christian environment, with eight siblings and a host of cousins. His father, the late Rev. John D. Johnson was a well-respected pastor, civil rights advocate and graduate of American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. His mother, the late Mary Ann Johnson was a distinguished educator and principal. Being raised amongst these two prevalent ideologies, provided him with a great background and respect for knowing God and pursuing a sound education. Along with his parents’ teaching, he was blessed to live less than 100-feet from his grandfather, the late Manson B. Johnson, Sr. and grandmother, the late Creasie Johnson (mid-wife). Manson, Sr. was a wise mentor for him and religiously promoted the true value of hard work. His grandfather strongly believed that, “you can’t do nothing without land.” As such, the family harvested a lot on their land in Muldrow community (Oktibbeha County). Their land became a work haven for people from all walks of life. From the time he began walking Manson Jr., was trained on how to conduct the family business. Studying the craft and working alongside his father and grandfather eventually came in handy. Years later, when his father was injured during a wreck; he was able to harvest the crop and tend to the cattle so that the family did not suffer any loss.

Being raised in the Civil Rights era had a great impact on him. Manson, Jr. vividly recalled the times of: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marching, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, voting rights bill being signed, the murder of Emmett Till, segregation and integration measures, federal troopers escorting his parents uptown to be the first Blacks to vote without a poll tax receipt in the county, amidst a long list of social economic and civil right issues that Blacks faced during that day. His father served as shepherd in several churches throughout Mississippi, where they would host civil rights meetings. At a young age, he experienced the Ku Klux Klan shooting at their home from the back of trucks, as well as burning crosses around the property. Despite the times, he and his family were well-integrated within the community. His mother became the first Negro teacher to be employed by the White school system uptown.

Manson, Jr.’s primary years of education were performed in a three-room school shack, with three teachers. Once the schools were consolidated he attended Florence O. Alexander Jr. High School. During our interview, he expressed his delight with the transfer. “We didn’t have to go out and search for wood and coal anymore, because we had an inside system; and they would kick chunks of coal off of the train, because we were right by the railroad,” he said. Afterwards, he attended W.C. Henderson High School in Starkville, MS. Though he suffered from dyslexia, he found that his mind expanded and was highly challenged, during those years. For there was already a preconceived stigma in place which suggested that, “country children didn’t have a mind.” Therefore, he made a pact with his best friends, that they would not be “dummies uptown”. Collectively, they held true to their agreement and made the honor roll a lot within their high school stint. He went on to graduate in 1966, after having become publisher and editor of the first and only Black newspaper at the school.

Getting to Texas

In 1966, he relocated to Houston with a $250 W.C. Henderson High Alumni Scholarship Award in hand; and all the religion, education and work ethics that a parent could instill in a child. Manson, Jr. declared at this stage of his life, “Texas brought the man out of me.” His enrollment at Texas Southern University in the summer, proved to be an eye-opening experience for him. Life in rural Mississippi never prepared him to witness Black folks driving new cars and living in, “big houses and good looking homes”. Nevertheless, the Black Power movement was in full throttle, race riots were worsening throughout the nation, the Vietnam War was at its height and Black folks had just gotten downright, “sick and tired, of being sick and tired.” Manson, Jr. was no exception to the rule. Activism had already become a part of his cultural makeup and design through his upbringing. Therefore, he took no thought in participating in marches and sit-ins at the historically Black university. He stood united with other college students who decided to fight for the future of TSU. Amongst their list of priorities were three main goals, “better food in the cafeteria, the development of an African-American study and literature center and to close down Wheeler St.”

A Personal Account: Largest Single Negro Protest Demonstration in Houston’s history

            “We socialized, lived and ate on the south side of Wheeler, on the North side we went to the library, laboratory and classrooms. Wheeler was the main artery to get to the University of Houston. So if you had a 7:30-8 o’clock class there were White children who would put the bumper of the cars together, so that you couldn’t cross the street. We would have to walk at least a quarter or half a mile to find a space where someone would let us cross the street. They were disrespectful to our girls, and called them out of their names. One day coming out of the cafeteria, we were already hyped up and had been sitting in. One of the students threw a Coke bottle and hit a White boy on a motorcycle. He threw it right into his front tire and it flipped 2 or 3 times. After the ambulance and police came, we started heckling the police. It just kind of brewed up from there and we sort of took the streets and sat in and wouldn’t let any more cars come through. About 300-400 cops were staged at the University of Houston as the sun went down and around midnight it was about 400-500. A little after midnight they started shooting up the place and my dormitory starting doing the twist.”

            From a desire to acquire civil and social college student equality HPD officers; arrested and jailed 488 students (barely clothed or naked), fired nearly 3,000 rounds of ammunition into the Lanier Dormitory and killed one of their own in the process, Officer Louis Kuba. May 17, 1967 was declared as the, “greatest mass arrest in Houston’s history.” Though students were charged with rioting, no evidence was ever found to support the claim. In fact, the only indication of riot-induced activity was performed by police officers. The following day, officers ravaged the dormitories and destroyed many of the students’ valuables and personal things. Furthermore the “TSU Five”, who were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot, were exonerated due to insufficient evidence. Today the incident has went down in local and national history as a “riot”. However, the underlying basis of the event was nothing more than a collective protest demonstration by Black college students, whose only objective was to garner equal rights. Undoubtedly, this experience served to raise and structure Manson, Jr.’s awareness of the realities that truly existed within his culture.

Throughout the advancement of his studies, times proved hard for him financially. He was dependent on student loans and “working the janitor detail of cleaning dormitories or collecting cafeteria leftovers for hog slop with Mr. Ray.” Nonetheless, he remained committed to the faith and hope that his parents had helped to engrave in him. Accordingly, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Government in 1971.

Marriage & Career

Though Manson, Jr. possessed a degree he shared that it was during a time when, “they would not give jobs to boys with Afro’s.” Therefore, he initiated a brief career driving trucks where he declares he, “made a lot of money and mistakes.” He then decided to become a substitute teacher in 1972, within the Houston Independent School District. While subbing at Cullen Junior High School, he was recommended by a well-established family who petitioned the principal to bring him on as a full-time teacher. From this experience he began working as a Mathematics educator, while simultaneously matriculating at Prairie View A & M University, where he received a Teacher Certified Degree in Mathematics in 1974.

In 1975, Manson, Jr. received an undeniable call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He made haste to accept and began carrying out the ordinance of his office at Holman Street Baptist Church. Upon coming to Houston, he had already united with the spiritually-thriving historic landmark within the community. He was an active member of the choir, mission, Sunday School department and was later named youth pastor. In the midst of finding favor with God, he found the same in Zelda Gray, who was reared in Holman Street BC. Accordingly, they joined in holy matrimony in 1976 and were blessed with three children, Manson, III, Matthew and Michelle.

After having previously sown abundant seeds of harvest within his pastoral reign of the youth, developing a strong Christian repertoire with the elders and exemplifying all the true attributes of a fervent leader, he was elected to serve as Shepherd of the Holman Street Baptist Church in 1977. At the same time, he was promoted to being head of the Mathematics Department at Cullen Junior High School. However, he resigned from that position and set out on the path that was predestined for him to journey. Shepherd Johnson revealed, “I was adamant about being who God called me to be – I was well trained by a multiple family of leadership and I knew I had to do what God told me to do.”

Community Focus

After assuming the role of Pastor, he immediately hit the ground running, by making a difference in the community and creating a CDC in 1995. Afterwards, the ministry continued on in demonstrating an extremely dominant presence by cleaning up the streets. Rather than complaining about the ills that had taken root within the area, the church began to lead by action. With the grace of God and through the Shepherd’s vision, the ministry began to purchase properties, demolish dilapidated and deteriorated houses and apartment buildings and built the first new homes in the community. From those efforts: the acquisition of residential, commercial and vacant land, including 32 crack houses in the Greater Third Ward community was completed; renovation improvements of 2 two-story office towers and 4 one-story community meeting buildings which were former drug distribution centers was achieved and are presently utilized for office use and educating underserved citizens of Harris County; 10 houses and a 32-room motel into class rooms and community space was purchased and renovated, and the East Side University Village development of 25 single family newly constructed affordable homes in the Houston and Central Business District was created. In 1998 the church moved into a new worship center under the administration of Shepherd Johnson. The East Side University Village Community Learning Center, an adult education school (SAC CAIS Licensed) was established. In this effort, four row houses were connected into to one building to create the space for the school. In 2008, the church also began teaching beginning and intermediate computer and GED classes. Since that time, Holman Street BC and Shepherd Johnson have remained a productive and integral part of the Third Ward community and Greater Houston area.

Community Accomplishments

During his tenure, Shepherd Johnson has been the recipient of a slew of awards namely: Urban League Leadership Award in 1994, United Way Community Leader Award, years 1995 – 1997, just to list a few. Some of his community accomplishments are listed as: being responsible for organizing five investors to acquire Unity National Bank from the FDIC and previous owners and restoring it to economic health within the Third Ward community and improving deposits from $14 million to $114 million, including constructing and opening additional branch locations;  spearheading efforts to successfully raise $190,000 in private sector funds to facilitate and print “The Greater Third Ward Community Comprehensive Plan”; founded and chaired a community storm rescue and evacuation first responder plan and operation under Mayor White for Hurricanes, Katrina, Rita and Ike; founding member and organizer of 48-member Third Ward Redevelopment Council (TWRC) which included, civic, banks, churches, and multiple community based community planning organizations – producing the Greater Third Ward Plan in 1995 and hired professional planners to produce a written plan for preserving, redeveloping and revitalizing The Greater Third Ward community. Shepherd Johnson has also founded Happy Angels (Early) Child Care Learning Center.

Additional community involvement efforts include: being appointed by Governors George Bush, Rick Perry and Greg Abott to serve as Director of Texas Health & Human Services Commission; Board of Directors, Texans YMCA (formerly South Central YMCA); shareholder of Unity National Bank; board member, Rebuild Together Houston (formerly PSI); life member of 100 Club (law enforcement), founder of Third Ward Youth Sports Association, Project Reaching Out (Youth Mentoring & Community Rescue) and East Side Village University Community Learning Center School; member of Shared Decision Making Committee (Jack Yates High School) and Republican Party of Texas; charter member of National Republican Committee; volunteer of Texas Prison Chaplaincy Program; president and founder of Youth Awareness Mentoring Outreach (YAMO) and South East Houston Community Development Corporation (SEHCDC); Board of Directors for Harris County – Houston Sports Association and Crime Stoppers of Houston; Chairman and founder of National Association of Christian Churches and Chair of the College of Education Community Advisory Board (Texas Southern University).

Professional Affiliations and Memberships

Pastor Johnson’s professional titles and memberships include the following: Dean – Independent Missionary Baptist General Association of Texas; American Leadership Forum – National & Houston Gulf Coast Chapter – Class XI; member of the Ministers Against Crime (Houston Police Department), Union Baptist Association, National Baptist Convention – USA, Baptist Ministers Association – Houston, Alpha Beta Sigma Chapter, TSU Alumnus – Houston Chapter (financial) and he has served on the National Blue Ribbon Committee for Phi Beta Sigma International, Inc. (life member and financial).

In past he has served as: Lt. Governor Appointed (Dewhurst) on the Texas Youth Commission Board; former president of Zone H – Union Baptist Association (Southern Baptist Convention); past chaplain – Alpha Beta Sigma Chapter of Phi and Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.; founder of Families Under Urban and Social Attack (FUSSA); advisory board – St. Joseph Home Health Services, University of Texas Medical Center and Community Aides Program; National Community Advisory Board – JP Morgan Chase; former president and founder – Citizens for Better Schools (H.I.S.D); former Corresponding Secretary – Independent Missionary Baptist General Association of Texas; member of the Budget Committee – Union Baptist Association (Southern Baptist Convention); former founding Member Board of Directors – Unity National Bank; former Board of Trustees – Star of Hope and team leader for Mayor Lee P. Brown’s Transition Team. He also possesses an Honorary Doctor’s degree from the Texas Southern University.

Mentors & Motivations

Shepherd Johnson regards his father and grandfather as his greatest motivations. He recognized others who were influential along his journey to success such as, various teachers and principals. Estella Boyd at Florence O. Alexander Jr. High School was very instrumental for me and Mr. C.G. Ward, he really wanted Negroes to go to college and that inspired me,” he said. He also remains grateful for his loving wife Zelda, who he speaks very highly of, in addition to his three wonderful children and grandchildren.

Black Press is a Necessity, Not an Option

Shepherd Johnson expressed his appreciation for the Black press. In his remarks he said, African-American News & Issues is on point to R-I-G-H-T the story – to give the right news because you can’t believe everybody’s news. The person behind the pen writes the story like they see it, the same with textbooks and it all depends on who wrote it. I’m appreciative of Roy Malonson and African-American News for helping the understanding of the Black masses in understanding many public policies (local, state and national), and to be an interpreter. The person that intrigued me most about the Black Press was Frederick Douglas. He convinced me that Black press is not an option, it’s a necessity. You must have a tool to express your freedom. I would say African-American News, continues to do for us, what many of us have not done for ourselves – that is to catalog and chronicle events of people’s lives that make a difference. The idea of Black press must not be treated lighted. We must take hold to it and view the Black press as necessity, not an option and we need to put it where it needs to be on the totem pole of our future.”

Stay on Top!

Anyone who has ever had the delightful privilege to communicate with Shepherd Johnson will remember three simple words, “Stay on Top!” At the close of our exclusive, I just could not depart without getting some form of insight into its derivative. He enlightened me by sharing two experiences which made these words stick profoundly with me, and gave an all new meaning to staying on top in my own personal life. “I was eight, standing under a huge tree – called the meeting tree. One day I was under there alone and I looked up and heard a voice in the tree which said, ‘If you treat your mother and father right, I will make your life successful and get you out of Mississippi and I will take you to the top’.” 

            He continued to explain, how years later, that same theme would manifest once again. “What solidified that for me was back in the 90’s, I joined the leadership group ALF and we went to Colorado Springs – Emerald Valley, they picked out a mountain for us to climb. It was 10,500-feet and as we went up the mountain they said, ‘As you move up the mountain, not only will the atmosphere change, but the environment will change. Things that you experience at the bottom of the mountain, you won’t have to worry with them at the top. Then, there are some of you who won’t make it but wherever you stop that’s your summit.’ We started up the mountain, it started up hot and then it turned cold, we slept in tents and we used biodegradable toilet paper. We could sleep on the naked ground – there were no ants, bugs, critters or rodents. We went up a little higher and they said, ‘The only thing you may see from time to time is a mountain ram or goat.’  When we got almost there it started snowing. When I reached the top of the mountain, I can’t explain what it felt like. Out of twenty-three, about nine or eleven of us made it to the mountain top. You could look 20-miles and it was so clear – it was a view that I wish I could have taken home. The air was so rich and healthy and there was no pollution. The mountain had a big top and there was plenty of room at the top. So I always tell people to, ‘Stay on Top’, and it can apply to anything. Rather it’s your ideas in life – Stay on Top; basketball or football – Stay on Top of your game; your marriage – Stay on Top. Because anybody that stays on the bottom, is losing because they are refusing to go where the height of the purpose is. There is less calamity and better fellowship at the top.”