By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
If Johnson's at home, he's working -- usually all day and into the night. He sits on one of the sofas before a coffee table lined from one end to the other with files. A bare bulb burns overhead. The telephone is at his feet. An old Planters peanut can is stuffed with pens, markers and highlighters, and an ashtray overflows with Marlboro Light 100s smoked down to the filter. The only signs of life beyond his mission to save APV hang from the dismal, paint-chipped walls: three pieces of refrigerator art drawn by neighborhood kids and a poster decreeing, "If you want peace, work for justice." A yellowed sheet of paper tacked to a bulletin board behind him is dated 1992.
To his left, a fax machine sits a foot away on a file cabinet. The photocopier is in the kitchen; Johnson pays tenants' children to make copies for him, keeping track of their hours on mimeographed time sheets. Johnson's old Apple computer, on loan from a supporter, is so obsolete it's unlikely he could get it fixed should it break down.
But on a recent day, the screen shone with the green text of his comments from a press conference earlier that morning. Johnson and a few supporters gathered to protest the recent effort by U.S. Representative Tom DeLay to repeal the Frost-Leland Act, which bars the use of federal funds to demolish Allen Parkway Village. The measure's passage in 1987 was a major victory. To confront DeLay's move, which was done at the request of Mayor Bob Lanier, Johnson assembled a familiar litany of rhetorical attacks.
A woman from something called the National People's Campaign ripped into "welfare for the rich." An architectural historian argued that the half-century-old Allen Parkway Village was on the cutting edge of building design; these days, she declared, "modernism is a burning issue."
Ruthie Bell, a matronly African-American woman from Freedmen's Town, lamented the inevitable encroachment of rich whites who would overtake the historically black area if APV is demolished.
"People have been raised here, have never lived anywhere else but in this area," she said. "Yet we have an attempt to move them out, simply because they want to move in and occupy this land. This is wrong."
Johnson, by himself, is more than capable of carrying the chorus of arguments against the demolition of APV. Through the years, he has honed to a fine edge his attacks on politicians, particularly African-American elected officials, whom he feels have betrayed the cause of Houston's poor blacks. So it wasn't unusual that Johnson virtually ignored DeLay, a white Republican from Sugar Land, and turned his venom on U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a black Democrat he suspects is a "closet" supporter of the Frost-Leland repeal.
"We want her to represent the low-income African-American constituents of Allen Parkway Village-Freedmen's Town and not the well-connected politicians like Mayor Lanier," Johnson said. "And since Tom DeLay is carrying the repeal without any protest from Congresswoman Lee, that we can see, we want to know what piece of legislation or issue in Sugar Land will she in turn carry for Tom DeLay."
Though Lee did, in fact, criticize DeLay's effort to repeal the Frost-Leland amendment, Johnson is not impressed. The way he sees it, the congresswoman only questioned the strategic wisdom and timing of DeLay's action, not its intent. As many in positions of power have learned, Lenwood Johnson isn't about to give Sheila Jackson Lee or anyone else the benefit of the doubt when it comes to Allen Parkway Village. His distrust runs too deep.
Born and raised in farm country near Brenham, Johnson was six years old when he first discovered things aren't always what they seem. During a trip to town with his parents, he had to go to the bathroom. The least troublesome option for a black boy growing up in the late 1940s was the courthouse. It was almost five o'clock in the afternoon when Johnson entered the building. After he emerged from the bathroom, he found the doors to the outside locked. A janitor tracked down a police officer in the building, who pushed open a side door for him. But as the boy started through it, the officer drew back his leg.
"He was going to kick me," Johnson recalls. "I shot out of there, ran down the steps and found my parents. It confused me. I thought a policeman was supposed to help."
Johnson's father was a sharecropper. The family also leased a parcel of land, on which they raised cattle. When he was nine, Lenwood, third oldest of six children, began buying newborn calves from area farmers for a dollar apiece, nursing the fragile creatures by hand until they could feed themselves.
By the time he was in high school, Lenwood and his father had a herd of about 45. But then the landowner, upset at the growing herd of cattle grazing in his fields, told them to leave. They were forced to sell all but nine head before moving to a smaller piece of land owned by Lenwood's grandfather.