A taste of local history
Johnson is a freelance writer and lecturer on Black history. “I’ve been writing and lecturing on historical topics for a long time,” he told The Bulletin. “I often use Arcadia’s books in my research, and I noticed that there were books out about many cities in the area but none were about Compton. I grew up in Compton, so I felt I would be able to compile a history of the city from that perspective.”
He submitted a proposal to the publisher, and it was accepted. Johnson researched newspaper archives, public records and the history archives of California State University Dominguez Hills to gather historical information about the city.
He is chairman of the projects committee of the History Council at the California African American Museum. He was co-coordinator of the Compton branch of the Black Panther Party and a founding member of the Coalition Against Police Abuse. Johnson lectures on local history and mentors a civil rights class at Otis College. His family moved from Watts to Compton in 1961.
“I felt I was in an ideal position to write about Compton’s beginnings and trace the city from its beginnings as part of a Spanish land grant to its position today,” Johnson said. “I particularly wanted to dispel the myths about the city that are so abundant today. There have been a lot of positive things happening here for many years. Yet, the prevailing image of the city is centered around gangs and crime and other salacious topics. I hope this book will give people the other side of the Compton story.”
The classes mentored by Johnson for the last two years at Otis College have become very popular, with registration rising every semester since it began. “I provide a link between the students and the city’s history by bringing in people I know who were part of the civil rights movement and other aspects of Black history,” he said. “I offer my own expertise gleaned from my work as a political activist with the Black Panthers. I try to bring the city’s history to life with my lectures and guests I invite to speak to the students.”
Johnson attended Compton College. “At the time, the college was a magnet for foreign students because of its location near UCLA, where students who earned associate’s degrees could continue their education. There were students from all over the world, especially the Middle East. I met and became friends with many of them. I learned about the history and political issues of their countries from these students.”
He has been writing and lecturing in the area for 19 years. He lives in Inglewood with his wife Karani, an award winning playwright. Her original play, “The Trial of One Shortsighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Tafreeta May,” has been produced in cities throughout the country, and won the Black Theater Award in Chicago. The show has been honored with many awards since it premiered. Johnson was born in Louisiana and moved to California when he was a child. “I was fortunate to move into Compton when a lot of things happened in the city,” he said. “It was a thriving, middle-class city during the 60s, when White flight increased the Black majority. But there was more than just racism happening in the city. People organized and became part of the civil rights movement. I don’t think a lot of people associated Compton with the movement. That’s a part of the city’s history that I focused on in the book.”
Arcadia Publishing is the leading local history publisher in the United States, with a catalog of more than 8,000 titles in print and hundreds of new titles released every year.
Established in 1993, the has blended a visionary management approach with the innovative application of state-of-theart technology to create high-quality historical publications in small local niches.
Arcadia is best known for its iconic Images of America series, which chronicles the history of small towns and downtowns across the country. Captured in unique pictorial format, small slices of hometown history detail the often forgotten aspects of American life.
Johnson’s book has more than 200 vintage images.
“A number of people were very helpful to me in finding material for this book,” he said. “Rose Mitchell of the Bilbrew Library was a great help. Greg Williams and Rom Philo were very helpful as well.”
Each title in Arcadia’s library celebrates a town or region, bringing to life the people, places and events that define the community. Arcadia also publishes other series: Images of Rail, Images of Aviation, Images of Sports, Images of Baseball, Postcard History, Campus History, Corporate History, and Then & Now. A new imprint, Legendary Locals, launched in 2011.
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