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The proceeds from the sale of Lenwood's cattle were to be used to help pay for him to attend St. Mary's College in San Antonio. But a flood followed by a severe drought wiped out the family's savings, including Lenwood's. He instead attended all-black Prairie View A&M on a two-year scholarship, majoring in physics. Johnson managed to afford a third year, thanks to a work-study job as a lab instructor. Before his senior year, however, he discovered he had been paid a fraction of what other work-study students had earned. When he protested, he lost his job.
"I was fired because I asked why I was getting 50 cents an hour when these kids from better families -- I call them the 'black bourgeoisie'; they're worse than the whites -- were getting a few bucks," Johnson says. "I ended up taking a gardener's job at a golf course for the summer, but it didn't pay enough for me to go back to school."
Johnson witnessed another injustice while in college, one that's never far from his mind and motivates him to this day. After his grandfather died, a Brenham bank tried to foreclose on 200 acres of the family's land over a $160 loan. Johnson's parents hired a Houston lawyer who agreed to help them fight the bank. An out-of-court settlement saved most of the land. But the bank ended up with more than 60 acres, Johnson says, which, even then, was worth a great deal more than $160.
"I've seen land taken from my family, and I've seen my mother and daddy fight for their land," Johnson says with a surprising matter-of-factness. "My grandmother on my mother's side, or I guess her parents before that, had acquired about 5,000 acres up in Somerville, Texas. That's exactly where the Corps of Engineers decided to put a lake. They took the property through eminent domain -- property that had been in my mother's family since shortly after slavery."
Despite the struggles over land, Johnson remembers his upbringing as a positive experience. He fondly recalls hunting squirrels, rabbits and the occasional deer -- but never birds: "There's something about birds, too fragile or something, but I just never liked to hunt them." He swam in ponds, tended the cattle and worked the crops with his father and four brothers. His grandfather's land is still in the family.
When Johnson fell on hard times -- divorced, unable to work and raising his son, Len, in Allen Parkway Village -- his family helped with money to feed and clothe the boy. They even offered to pay for him and Len to move into private housing. But by then, Johnson was fighting to save APV and refused to leave. He found no quarrel on that point from his parents.
"They understood the fight for land," he says.
Johnson's mother died five years ago. His father passed away in June, five days before the family was to gather at the homestead near Brenham to celebrate his 88th birthday. When he was a young farm boy, Johnson says, people didn't know what to make of him. Now that he's a poor, jobless, public housing resident, he knows they regard his determined stand with equal parts curiosity and contempt.
"All through high school, my fellow students used to ask me, 'Why you hold your head up so high? Why you so proud?' I said, 'Because I'm a human being, that's why.' But there's something about me that do make some people uneasy. I don't know what it is."
When Sissy Farenthold, a prominent community activist, former state legislator and onetime gubernatorial candidate, left Houston in 1976, Allen Parkway Village was considered the best of the city's public housing complexes. At the time, it was more than 95 percent occupied, mostly by African-Americans who favored its proximity to the Fourth Ward and Houston's central business district.
By the time Farenthold returned in 1980, however, APV's downward spiral was in full swing. HACH had stopped performing even routine maintenance, refusing to spend some $10 million the city had received from HUD for repairs. Nearly half the complex's 1,000 units had been boarded up, and in an attempt to pave the political pitfalls to its then-secret demolition plans, HACH had filled most of the rest with Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.
Driving past the deteriorating compound almost daily, Farenthold became convinced that a private proposal to tear it down and build a park was "a nice idea." She even tried to enlist the help of Henry B. Gonzales, a friend who chaired the House subcommittee on housing. Then, she explains, she became "conversant" with the history of APV and the Freedmen's Town area.
"I got to more and more feeling it was a real racial divide, and I think that's what really irritated me on a philosophical level," Farenthold says. "It's like, they make their plans and what crumbs are left can be for the poor. And that just infuriates me on a gut level."
Farenthold recalls that she first heard of Lenwood Johnson through an organization called the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. They made contact, and Johnson kept in touch, hoping the veteran social activist could help. Farenthold put Johnson in touch with her network of state and federal contacts, but didn't become "fully involved" in the effort to save Allen Parkway Village until the late 1980s, when she become a member of the Resident Council's advisory board.