ST. PETERSBURG — In the early 1960s, Willie Mae "Dear" Johnson and a Franciscan nun loaded a station wagon with uniformed black schoolchildren from Immaculate Conception Catholic School and headed into town.
Their target: restaurants that openly practiced segregation.
"I want these children served," she would say.
"I remember people staring at us, kind of like glaring," said Sylvia Taylor, her daughter. Even so, she never felt threatened.
"You just felt so safe and secure," said Taylor, 60. "My mom was there."
Mrs. Johnson spent a lifetime making sure all the children she encountered felt the same way, including her kindergarten students over 37 years at Immaculate Conception.
Her resolve stemmed from a difficult childhood. Her biological mother was no older than 14, her father a white adult.
"When she was born, she looked white so nobody wanted her," said Taylor, now a Sarasota lawyer. An adoptive mother drank heavily and used her for labor.
"She always used to pray herself to sleep," Taylor said, "(saying) 'When I become an adult, I want 10 children, and I'm going to give them love.' "
After her first marriage ended, she married Cleveland Johnson Sr. in 1948. As the city's first black Realtor, according to newspaper accounts, Cleveland Johnson often brought prospective buyers by the house to meet his wife.
"She was a better salesman than he was," Taylor said.
Mrs. Johnson could stand her ground when she needed to, such as those visits to restaurants she and the nun had targeted. Despite their usual customs, the restaurants served her party.
In the meantime, Mrs. Johnson volunteered with the Red Cross for more than 50 years; as one of the gray ladies at Mercy Hospital; and generally as a kind of neighborhood mom.
"When I moved here we had no family," said Vivian Rouson, a former high school French teacher (and the mother of state Rep. Darryl Rouson). "She was a place we could always share parenting with."
Cleveland Johnson Sr. died in 1971, at age 65. Men wanted to date Mrs. Johnson, but she wasn't interested.
"When you've had the best, you can't replace it," her daughter said. "Also, she said she would not wait on another man."
She enjoyed bingo and card games with friends.
In late June, doctors diagnosed late-stage colon cancer.
Mrs. Johnson died at home July 5, under hospice care. She was 92.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.