half a century of living in the same West Baltimore house, 90-year-old Laura Johnson says she's quite happy to finally be living alone. "I'm trying to think when I was here by myself," she says, with four different versions of the Bible spread before her on her living room coffee table. "It really wasn't all that long, but it was good when I was."
"When I first moved here," in 1960, she recalls, "for the first three or four years, I had to get dressed to go to the bathroom, there were so many people living here, and none of them was working." She lists the long roster of folks who called her home
home over the decades and then says, "all of them left, nearly all at the same time, about five years ago. People say, 'Aren't you afraid?' I say, 'No, no, and thank you, Jesus!' I'm not ever lonesome. Sometimes I wish I was!"
Of the parade of relatives and friends living elsewhere, Johnson says, "they are paying me back now. If I call one of them and say I want something, I get it. And they'll call me and ask me if I'm all right and everything. I love it here."
Johnson-who is known as "the mayor of the 1700 block of Bentalou Street," in the Coppin Heights neighborhood-proudly calls herself a "neighborhood activist." Despite her age and increasing frailty, the 4-foot-10-inch (in heels) dynamo remains very active as a block captain for two neighborhood associations, the sergeant-at-arms and chaplain for one of them, and a board member of the Coppin Community Development Corporation. Until three years ago, she says, she worked the polls in every election since John F. Kennedy was elected president.
The urge to help out was instilled in Johnson at a very young age, after her mother and father died in the 1930s and her aunt took her and her four siblings in, to join her own 13 children, Johnson recalls. They lived in an eight-bedroom house in North Carolina. "She taught us to help one another," Johnson says. "If we were [working] at a field next to somebody and we got finished first, we helped them, and if they got finished first, they helped us. That's how they taught us. And I have helped."
When school let out for the summer, Johnson would go to Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore to help relatives tend to households filled with other children. Then, "I finished high school in the '40s, and I came here to Baltimore to keep my cousins' children and have been here ever since."
She first lived on Stirling Street in East Baltimore, and later met her husband-Louis Johnson, a disabled veteran who worked in a local candy factory, and who passed away in 1982-while she was living on McCulloh Street. In May 1960, they moved to Bentalou Street.
Over the decades, Johnson worked a number of jobs-as a housekeeper for a wealthy banking family; as a hat-check girl and night housekeeper at the Sheraton hotel at Orleans Street and Broadway; helping manage and clean the New Albert Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue; waitressing at the Governor's Club on Eutaw Street-but what she's most remembered for is her 20 years supervising crews of 16 to 21-year-olds participating in the Baltimore City Jobs Corps program.
"We cleaned everything outside-yards, alleys, sidewalks-that's how the place stayed so clean. The kids called me mean 'cause I used to holler at them. I made them work. Afterwards we would go to Druid Hill and play ball, and people would ask, 'Who is the boss?' And they would point to me, and they'd say, 'She's the littlest one in the group!' They respected me, and they still respect me."
100 Years of City Folk
Age 10: Jaya Mandala | Age 20: Jaclyn Jones | Age 30: Andrew Syropoulos Age 40: Samuel E. Lee Jr. | Age 50: Maureen Kramer | Age 60: Andrew Der Age 70: James E. Locklear | Age 80: Mario Carrion | Age 90: Laura Johnson Age 100: Lucille Brooks