Breaking new ground: Lou Bertha Johnson in Jim Crow Alabama

single-meta-cal March 7, 2022

Editor’s note: This blog was written by Historic Huntsville Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano in celebration of Women’s History Month in March. Visit the HHF website here.

The Huntsville community came together in October 2021 to dedicate a historic marker recognizing Huntsville’s six Black suffragists, the only Black women allowed to register to vote in Madison County following the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. Collectively, the lives of Mary Binford, Ellen Brandon, India Herndon, Lou Bertha Johnson, Celia Love and Dora Lowery stretch from Reconstruction to Ronald Reagan.

After the ratification of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, which stripped most Black men of their voting rights, the Lakeside Methodist community became a source of strength and resistance for Huntsville’s Black community. To survive this bleak period, Black leaders promoted the necessity of self-reliance, entrepreneurship and education as a way to insulate themselves against a rising tide of white supremacy.

Growth of an activist

By the 1930s, a generation of Black leaders emerged who internalized this ethic of economic independence and cultural pride. Over the next three decades, they challenged the political and economic system of white supremacy, using their financial resources, business acumen and the strength of a unified Black community to assert their rights. Huntsville’s relatively peaceful Civil Rights Movement is popularly attributed to white civic leaders who valued Huntsville’s future as a space city over its segregationist past. However, this interpretation ignores the contributions of Huntsville’s Black leaders, who never stopped resisting and challenging the precepts of Jim Crow Alabama.

The youngest of the suffragist families, Lou Bertha and Shelby Johnson, struck the largest blows for civil and voting rights. When facing discrimination, they spoke out. When state and local officials enforced laws that threatened their livelihood, they sought justice. Emboldened, the Johnsons organized voter registration drives, actively recruiting Black citizens to register to vote.

Lou Bertha and Shelby Johnson embodied “Lifting as we Climb,” the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, promoting self-sufficiency and a helping hand.”

Lou Bertha and Shelby Johnson embodied “Lifting as we Climb,” the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, promoting self-sufficiency and a helping hand. The couple established their successful dry-cleaning business in 1921, opening Grand Shine Parlor on Clinton Avenue. In 1947, they opened a second location, Grand Cleaners, a modern dry-cleaning facility on Franklin Street.

Entrepreneurship as a foundation of success

Mrs. Johnson was an activist and a pioneering businesswoman. When the Binford family shuttered The Journal in 1912, Huntsville lost a newspaper that covered the activities of Black women  until The Huntsville Mirror launched in 1952. It’s likely Mrs. Johnson had little time for social organizations, as census records state she worked 40-60 hours a week in the family business. In 1930, she worked as a “presser.” Ten years later, she was the company’s bookkeeper. She participated with Mr. Johnson in his civic activities, and she is listed on filings associated with the company’s legal cases. Mrs. Johnson oversaw all facets of its operation.

Justice for the Johnsons

A 1938 conflict between the Johnsons and Alabama’s Unemployment Compensation Commission shows that Huntsville’s court system could deliver justice. The issue involved whether the Johnsons had violated Alabama’s unemployment compensation law. According to newspaper reports, W.D. Powell, a state unemployment agent, arrested Johnson for his refusal to make the company’s payroll records available for Powell’s inspection.

The Johnsons countered that they did not have the records Powell requested, and they fought the charges in Madison County Circuit Court. J. Eugene Foster, general counsel for the Unemployment Compensation Commission, and N. T. Spann prosecuted Johnson at trial. Johnson hired Ed Johnston, a prominent Huntsville attorney, to defend him. After hearing testimony that included Powell’s assertion that Johnson, a Black man, had been discourteous to him, an all-white jury deliberated 20 minutes and acquitted the Johnsons of any wrongdoing.

It is unclear whether the men who served on the jury were swayed by defense arguments or their antipathy for an overreaching state law, but the Johnsons’ encounter with the legal system increased their resolve to point out Alabama’s inequities. In 1940, Johnson penned a letter to The Huntsville Times lamenting that Blacks were not allowed to put their feet in the Big Spring while “white people enjoy themselves in their swimming pool (a public pool) during this hot weather.”

The Johnsons further challenged Jim Crow by their involvement with the Fraternal Club, a group formed in 1944 to improve the civic status of Huntsville’s Black citizens. In February 1945, the group recruited approximately 50 men and women who met the provisions of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution to apply to county registrars for voter registration. In a letter to The Times under the headline “Negroes Protest,” the group reported the registrars’ unwillingness to consider their applications, noting that only a few applicants received registration certificates. Both Johnsons were registered to vote, but their adult children participated in the protest.

Fighting City Hall

In their 1947 lawsuit against the City of Huntsville, the Johnsons showed that African Americans could fight City Hall. The lawsuit, Johnson v. The City of Huntsville, arose over a zoning dispute between the Johnsons and the City, which refused to issue the Johnsons a building permit to construct a dry-cleaning plant on Franklin Street. City zoning officials determined the plant was not allowed as the area was zoned residential. At this time, Pinhook Creek – which runs along Lowe Avenue – divided Franklin Street between white residents to the north and Black residents to the south.  The Johnsons claimed City officials had actually issued a building permit, then revoked the permit when white residents who lived on Franklin Street objected.

Arthur Shores Davis and other figures

Arthur Shores (right) with Arthurine Lucy and Thurgood Marshall in 1955, in their case to admit Ms. Lucy to the University of Alabama. Mr. Davis was the most successful Civil Rights attorneys in Alabama. In the previous decade, Mr. Davis successfully represented the Johnsons in their lawsuit against the City of Huntsville.

Armed with a petition signed by 58 Black citizens supporting a zoning exemption, the Johnsons appeared before Huntsville City Council. When the Council denied their request, the Johnsons appealed to Madison County’s circuit court.

The Johnsons had no intent of backing down from this fight. The couple retained Arthur Davis Shores to represent them in their case against the City. Shores was a Birmingham lawyer who represented civil rights cases on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Along with Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court, Shores represented Arthurine Lucy in her 1956 case to gain admission to the University of Alabama. When Circuit Court Judge Elbert Parsons ruled on behalf of the City, Shores immediately appealed the case to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court justices who heard the Johnsons’ case were white, elected almost exclusively by white voters, and with no known tendencies toward racial justice. Shores argued that the City had violated the Johnsons’ constitutional rights by zoning the couple’s Franklin Street lot for residential use. Shores also stated that the City’s zoning ordinance failed to meet state requirements, which rendered it null and void.

Grand Cleaners

Grand Cleaners at 801 Franklin Street in 1947.

Alabama’s Supreme Court supported the Johnsons, reversing the circuit court’s decree. In the Court’s decision, Alabama Justice Joel B. Brown wrote that the “exercise of property rights cannot be left to the caprice, whim or aesthetic sense of a special group of people who may object.” This was a clear swipe at the Franklin Street residents who instigated the City’s action. The couple opened their new dry-cleaning operation in October 1947, in the building that stands at 801 Franklin Street today.

Community service

As the Johnsons confronted legal challenges, their allegiance to the nation never wavered. Shelby Johnson supported the American Red Cross and aided wartime subscription efforts as early as 1918. During World War II, F.D. Patterson, president of Tuskegee Institute and state chairman of the Negro Division for War Bond sales, tapped Johnson to lead Madison County’s War Bond program. Johnson established 12 committees to support the program, recruiting prominent Black business and civic leaders to spearhead efforts, including Lou Bertha Johnson, Dr. John Cashin, Sr. and LeRoy Lowery.

The Johnsons continued their fight for Black voting rights. In 1956, Shelby Johnson organized and lectured at voter registration drives across the Tennessee Valley.

By all accounts, the Johnsons’ activism had little impact on their relationships with Huntsville’s white residents, who were also customers of their family business. When Shelby Johnson died in 1957, both Black and white ministers spoke at his funeral. Dr. Carl A. Grote Sr., a founder of Huntsville Hospital, served as an honorary pallbearer. Johnson’s obituary recalls his association with Dr. Marion Moorman, a respected physician and chairman of the Madison County Medical Society, for whom Johnson worked as a youth. In an effort facilitated by Mr. Johnson, Dr. Moorman presented the first Black Boy Scout troop in Madison County with their troop charter in 1940. At the time of her death in 1985, Mrs. Johnson lived on Toney Drive in southeast Huntsville, a neighborhood with many white neighbors.

The actions of Huntsville’s Black suffragists in 1920 was one in a series of events that chipped away at white supremacy and Jim Crow rule in Alabama. The year of Shelby Johnson’s death, Congress passed the first Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction, authorizing the prosecution of those who interfered with the right of citizens to vote. Barriers created by states that kept Black citizens from the polls were finally abolished by the Voting Rights Bill of 1965. Suffragists Dora Lowery, India Herndon and Lou Bertha Johnson lived to see the passage of this momentous legislation, aided by the leadership of Huntsville’s Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, the son of Dora and LeRoy Lowery. Their commitment to voting rights was their life’s work.

RELATED: ‘Hidden Figures’ no longer: Celebrating Huntsville’s Black suffragists