NATCHITOCHES – Northwestern State University’s second Living Library presentation commemorated the legacy of the late Ben Johnson, an entrepreneur, civic leader, mentor and advocate in the African American community. Johnson was remembered for his quiet fortitude, business acumen and generosity. Panelists Claire Prymus, State Rep. Kenny Cox, Coushatta Mayor Dr. Johnny Cox, Edward Ward Jr. and Dr. Marcus Jones shared their experiences and memories of Johnson and the lasting impact he had on them personally and in the broader community. Dr. Vickie Parrish was moderator.
“My uncle was more of a father figure to me,” Prymus said. “His legacy continues through me. Education was paramount. He wanted to see African American youth thrive. At his core, he was a humble soul. He fostered pride and purpose. He was always wanting to help and wanting me to be better. My life’s journey was always to make him proud and be something of a small legacy to my Uncle Ben.”
Johnson was born in Campti, the oldest of 10 children, and in the 1930s launched a successful funeral home business that became one of the most prominent minority business systems in Louisiana. He was involved in government, civic affairs, youth development and many philanthropic endeavors.
Panelists shared that Johnson started out as a young man by borrowing $2.75 from friends. He was educated at the Lincoln Institute/Natchitoches Parish Training School and later at the Dallas Mortuary School. His businesses grew to include funeral homes, a life insurance company, a building service and a casket factory.
“What really impressed me about Mr. Johnson is that he started this business right on the heels of the Great Depression when food and opportunity were in short supply,” said Ward, who worked for Johnson for more than 50 years. “He had no college education, no money and had the courage to start a business. It took nine men to put that $2.75 together. He went so far beyond the norm for a young black uneducated man with no resources and made a great and lasting contribution. He was a man that we talk about, write about and pattern ourselves after.”
Johnson mentored many African American youth, including brothers Kenny and Johnny Cox in their military and public service careers and Jones, an attorney and professor at NSU.
“Mr. Johnson was a quiet man. I grew up during the Civil Rights era and I had never seen a black man like him,” Kenny Cox said. “He wanted the community to be educated. He was a conduit between black and white communities.”
Johnny Cox said Johnson mentored him as a young employee and encouraged him to always be persistent. Johnson’s influence carried over into Dr. Cox’s duties and responsibilities as the current major of Coushatta, where he has coordinated improvements to the town and encourages people to register to vote.
Jones said Johnson was his first client when he became a lawyer.
“I met Mr. Johnson was I was teaching at NSU. I had finished my master’s degree and wanted to go to law school. I had never seen an African American man who had accomplished so much and had so much money that he could give it away.” Johnson established a professorship at NSU and also donated to Grambling State University and Southern University, in addition to funding churches, ballparks and youth programs, Jones said.
“He also had one of the keenest minds,” Jones added.
“He was always willing to continue,” Ward said. “Age didn’t matter. Weather didn’t matter. He kept going and he had a vision and a plan and was willing to work himself so hard that it inspired others to work that hard. He was a foot soldier in addition to a great leader.”
Johnson received many honors throughout a lifetime of service. He was named an honorary Louisiana state senator and awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Northwestern State University, where he established the Ben D. Johnson Endowed Professorship in Business. He received the NAACP humanitarian services award was lauded by U.S. President Bill Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela.
Johnson passed away in 2005. Today, his work lives on through initiatives coordinated by the Ben D. Johnson Education Center, the Legacy Youth Workforce Development Program and the Legacy Café.
“Ben Johnson: A Natchitoches Legacy” was presented by NSU’s Eugene P. Watson Library. The concept of a living library encourages individuals to share their experiences on a specific topic so that listeners get a first-hand account of what the person saw or lived through. The panels are recorded and become part of the collection that researchers can use to supplement books, journals and other traditional resources.
The next Living Library event will take place during the Fall 2020 semester and will include a panel discussion on world religions. For more information, contact Living Library coordinator Deborah Huntington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (318) 357-6947.