Lifelong Davidson Siblings Create Legacy of Learning and Affordable Housing
June 11, 2001
Ralph Johnson and his sister Erving, lifetime residents and prominent citizens of Davidson, have transferred thirteen rental houses to Davidson College, and committed to funding a need-based scholarship for African American students at the college.
The college has, in turn, donated eight of those homes to the Davidson Housing Coalition and committed funds for their rehabilitation and/or redevelopment. The properties will become part of the DHC Land Trust, and be sold to current tenants or other qualified buyers through a "land lease" sale that allows DHC to maintain control of the lot, while lowering the purchase price of the properties by about 25 percent. Homeowners build equity as they pay mortgage, and realize appreciation on the value of the houses when they sell.
The donated homes are on Mock Circle and Sloan Street in Davidson, and range in size up to 1,300 square feet. Their acquisition brings the number of properties in the DHC Land Trust to 22, increasing by almost fifty percent its stock of affordable housing to maintain in for current and future generations. Margo Williams, president of the DHC board of directors, said "We are so grateful that Davidson College and the Johnsons demonstrated their belief in our mission so tangibly. The college has shown a great deal of concern for making Davidson an affordable place for all to live by making this happen. The arrangement benefits all parties, but the biggest winners are the people already living in the homes, because they now have the opportunity to become homeowners."
Williams said all current occupants of the homes will be cared for by either helping them buy their homes, or moving them into other rental properties at no increase in monthly payments. It is also possible that some of the lots involved are large enough for building additional affordable housing.
A DHC task force that includes several of the current occupants of the properties has already begun meeting to assess the condition of the houses, make plans for rehabilitations, and examine opportunities for new construction. College officials have been exploring ways to help the DHC in its goals of increasing and sustaining the supply of housing affordable to citizens of diverse incomes since the DHC was incorporated in 1997.
Johnson and his sister, who formerly lived in one of the homes that is being donated to DHC, were forced to seek assisted living several months ago when ninety-six-year-old Ralph Johnson broke his hip. The two decided at that time to divest themselves of the properties. However, they were not looking forward to the complications of thirteen different closings and many different buyers.
College officials recognized in those properties an opportunity to contribute to the community by expanding the base of affordable housing in Davidson, and approached the Davidson Housing Coalition with a plan to donate and help renovate them.
The college offered to purchase all of the properties in an arrangement that includes a lifetime annuity for the Johnsons to support their care at The Laurels Retirement Center. As those negotiations proceeded, the Johnsons also decided to commit a substantial bequest to Davidson College for the Ralph W. and Erving E. Johnson Scholarship, which the college recently established. The scholarship recognizes "intellectually curious African American students with financial need who display the sort of strong involvement in the community demonstrated by these two prominent residents of Davidson." Its first recipient is Damion L. White, who was named Student of the Year as a graduating senior at West Charlotte High School in 1999-2000. He completed a post-graduate year in May at Phillips Andover Academy, and will enroll with the Davidson College Class of 2005 in August.
Ralph Johnson recently published an autobiography entitled David Played A Harp (available through Blackwell Ink, Inc.), which chronicles his life and struggles as a prominent barber determined to better himself in an era when segregation severely limited opportunities for black citizens like himself. His father died when he was eight, and Johnson accepted the care of his mother and sister as his duty. His mother taught him to read, and it opened up the world to his intellectual curiosity and ambition.
"I came to the realization I was an ignorant person," Johnson said. "Not many people will admit that, but I did. And I knew what I needed to do was study and learn to lift that ignorance. Once I began, I was fascinated with it. Some times I couldn't wait for the next assignment!"
Though he was barred from admission to colleges like the one in his town, living in a town where education was the major industry strengthened Johnson's determination to educate himself.
Johnson took advantage of the minimal education available to black children in Davidson at the time, then at age 16 began full-time work to support the family by reestablishing his father's barber shop. A few years later he began enrolling in correspondence courses, and ended up studying commercial art, law, and writing for a dozen years, working on assignments late into the night after he returned from the barber shop. He operated Johnson's Barber Shop for 50 years, growing his trade to eventually include seven barbers. He also acquired houses and turned them into rental properties to increase his income. "I never could have done what I did without an education," he said. "At that time blacks had no hope. They stayed in servility and poverty because that was their 'rightful' place. It just ruined many of them because they were blocked from doing anything substantial with their lives."
From his stance behind the barber chair Johnson achieved status in the community, and developed friendships with prominent citizens from town and gown that endure to this day. He was encouraged in his pursuits by some people like the late Davidson English professor, W.P. Cumming, who brought him books from the public library, which barred black patrons.
Johnson cherished his prominence in the community, and guarded the confidence of his customers. "There was the story of one man asking another about some business," Johnson recalled. "His friend replied, ‘Have you discussed this with your barber yet?'! Barbers were a good source of advice and information on town affairs."
Johnson's success was startling at the time, and not appreciated by some people, both white and black, who were accustomed to the racial status quo. He felt a growing estrangement from some jealous citizens of both races as his business and prosperity grew.
Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, Johnson's achievements were almost wiped out in the late 1960s by the Civil Rights Movement that purported to seek equal opportunity for blacks.
Johnson's Barber Shop had always been a segregated establishment, with black barbers cutting the hair of white customers. White college students and faculty seized upon this refusal to seat black customers as an injustice, and staged demonstrations and boycotts of the shop in 1968 to force Johnson to integrate his trade. He pleaded with the demonstrators to relent, arguing that his white customers would abandon him if blacks were admitted to the shop. But the demonstrators refused to leave, and Johnson was forced to integrate to simply keep his doors open.
As he feared, his business quickly declined, and he finally shut it down in 1971.
It was a bitter experience for Johnson, who felt trapped by circumstances. He wrote in his book, "I did not originate the practice of segregation. I had been forced to live under its rule for sixty years. But these young white men behaved as if I had been the founder from the beginning, and that but for me the whole evil thing would disappear from the earth. . . Their fathers and grandfathers and all the generations before them were absolved of guilt, and all of this shame and scorn was heaped upon me."
Though he had always admired the college's educational mission, he admitted that he "didn't have much use for Davidson College" after the boycott. Recently, however, his life's circumstances and changing times brought him and college officials back together. "People change and institutions change," he said. "It's a new day."
Johnson was happy to discover that Davidson has been aggressively recruiting and enrolling black students for many years, and that black graduates of the college are prominent citizens in their communities. He decided that he wanted his legacy to help more black students toward achievements that were only dreams in his generation. "There are so many worthy black students who have so much hope for the future," Johnson said. "So many young black people have the desire and willingness to go far, but they don't have the money they need. So we decided to put our assets to this useful purpose."
Ralph Johnson said he's very pleased with how things have turned out. The plan is the product of some creative thinking by well-developed minds, and will benefit individuals and the community in perpetuity. "The human mind has to be developed," he said. "If it isn't developed it can never reach its potential. But if you develop the mind you create a useful person most of the time!"
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.