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Recreation center in Progress Village named for longtime fixture Emmanuel Johnson

Emmanuel P. Johnson talks to visitors at the grand opening of the Progress Village Community Center, which bears his name.
Emmanuel P. Johnson talks to visitors at the grand opening of the Progress Village Community Center, which bears his name.
Published Mar. 31, 2016

On a recent Friday morning, Progress Village's honorary mayor, Emmanuel P. Johnson, 94, is showing off his stash of memorabilia and keepsakes he has collected over a lifetime.

There are the books about the history of his hometown of Marianna, the photo of him as a young soldier during World War II, the newspaper clippings that feature him talking about Progress Village, the place he has called home since 1960.

Johnson's chatter is lively until his fingers lightly touch a framed black and white photo.

In the picture, he and his wife, Ruby, are sitting on a bed. He's in the forefront, grinning, while Ruby leans over his left side, smiling widely.

Ruby died more than 30 years ago, but it's clear that the pain of her death remains fresh.

Johnson squints his eyes tightly before opening them again and speaking softly.

"I wish she was here because we went through all that stuff together," he said.

• • •

The "stuff" is the rapid growth of what was once a cow pasture into the bustling subdivision now known as Progress Village.

It's a community that Johnson helped build — a fact recently acknowledged by the County Commission, which named Hills­borough's newest community center after the man affectionately known as Progress Village's honorary mayor.

A spry man who's quick to recite an original poem, Johnson was born in Marianna to a teenage mother and raised by his grandparents, Armstrong and Grace Purdee.

A former slave, Armstrong was a witness to the Civil War's Battle of Marianna. He later became the first African-American lawyer in Jackson County.

Johnson said he grew up wanting to be like his grandfather, whom he called "Papa." His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but school didn't hold his attention and he dropped out in the 10th grade.

He worked a series of jobs in Marianna and Georgia before he was drafted in 1942. He was sent overseas, "straight to Germany."

"I was there when the war ended," he said.

When he returned stateside, Johnson moved to Tampa and got a job at the Devoe Paint Co. He worked there for 35 years before retiring in 1985.

He met Ruby, his second wife, at St. Pete Beach. They married in 1954 and had five children. Johnson has a total of eight children.

"I never married again because I knew there would never be another Ruby," he said.

• • •

Johnson is coy when asked to share his thoughts about the new recreation center bearing his name. He offers up a poem instead.

"A man without knowledge of his past is a tree without roots," he said.

The new $2.3 million center boasts a 7,000-square-foot gymnasium and 8,000 square feet of recreational space equipped with a kitchen, an arts and crafts room, exercise and weight training rooms, and a computer lab.

Last week, Johnson's significance and contributions to the community were exalted at the building's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

When it came time to give the new building a name, Johnson's was highly recommended, Commissioner Les Miller said.

"Given the history … it seemed appropriate," he said.

• • •

Johnson's history in Progress Village is simultaneous with the community's.

In 1958, developers announced plans to build homes for black residents on more than 1,200 acres in rural Hillsborough County. For $200 down and $60 a month, dozens of black families like the Johnsons flocked to the area to own their piece of the American dream.

The area was 11 miles outside of Tampa. There were no telephone lines, no streetlights, no mail service and no bus service.

Where others may have flinched, Johnson saw opportunity. He was one of the first to sign up.

"I knew Progress Village was going to grow," he said. "I knew that all kinds of people would move out here."

Johnson is a constant fixture in many of Progress Village's major milestones. He was a charter member of the civic council. He started its first business, a small concession stand with a nickel jukebox. He helped lay the cornerstone of the first church, Harris Temple United Methodist, where he and Ruby helped start a kindergarten.

Today, Johnson still lives in his home situated at 78th Street and Endive Avenue. It's a modest white house with green trim and a carport.

Much has changed over the past 56 years. Progress Village still looks the same but demographics and the feel of the community are different. Many of the old families are no longer in the neighborhood. More renters have moved in. Some of the homes have bars on the windows. Drug deals are a common occurrence.

But none of that matters to Johnson. Ever since his first glimpse at that cow pasture, he has never considered living anywhere else.

"I told Ruby, 'If they build a cemetery in Progress Village, bury me in it,' " he said. "It's a great life. It don't get no better."