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A true inspiration
Home economist encourages others with work ethic

In recognition of National Women's History Month, throughout March the Citizen will profile local women who have impacted the community in a positive way. Though many of these women's accomplishments may be mostly unsung, they have each, in their own way, made their mark on history.

COVINGTON - Lottie Johnson carries herself with a certain elegance, a dignified air, a kind of tranquility that one can't help but envy.

On the surface, she is simply serene.

But it doesn't take long to recognize that underneath, there is a quiet thunder.

Johnson knows it, too.

"I've always been a very daring-type person," she says.

As one of the first black home economists in the state of Georgia, Johnson had to be.

She broke new ground in Newton County during her 31 years with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, holding community classes that attracted both blacks and whites in a time when segregation was still commonplace.

Once, she sent a black 4-H student to a leadership conference that had previously only been attended by white students.

"Nobody told me that I couldn't do it, and I pretended that I didn't know any better," she said, her eyes dancing with mischief.

The student who went "had a ball. It broke the barrier for others to go."

Johnson went to work for the Extension Service on June 1, 1955. At that time, the service was segregated - black and white agents had separate offices - and Johnson was limited to working with black residents until integration in the mid-'60s.

In 1972, she was appointed home economist for Newton County, becoming one of the first black women to hold such a position, and the first to do so in a predominately white community.

She traveled all over the county, visiting homes to teach residents the basics on such varied subjects as money management, interior decorating, menu planning, care of plants, weight loss and parent-child relations.

She taught well-attended community-wide classes, such as a sewing workshop held at Snapping Shoals EMC. Other courses, as listed on a 1979 Extension Service pamphlet, included home safety; energy conservation in the home; gardening; food preservation; infant and child nutrition; and family finances.

Johnson also wrote a weekly newspaper column, hosted a daily radio show and produced a monthly newsletter called "Between Us Girls."

Her success was aided by an advisory committee she established that included some of the town's most affluent citizens, she said.

"My philosophy has always been, 'If you think you can, why not try? But you never know if you don't try,'" she said.

Johnson reached out to local students, teaching 4-H classes. Buncie Lanners was one student who said she learned more than just the basics from Johnson.

"Not only did she teach us to use our personal gifts as our resources for succeeding and serving, but also she taught us to use the resources of the land, our homes and our interconnectedness to better ourselves and our families and provide leadership in our community," Lanners said. "Truly, she embodies the role of womanhood as celebrated during Women's History Month, and I was and am lucky to have had her as a role model in my life."

Jeff Wagner, another 4-H student, remembered Johnson as " a very well-put together, well-spoken lady."

"What Mrs. Johnson taught me was respect and professionalism and treating people with kindness," he said.

Johnson's efforts were recognized at the state and national levels as well as by her students.

In 1974, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the Georgia Association of Extension Home Economists. That same year, she was named Home Economist of the Year.

Two years later, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Extension of Home Economists.

Johnson pursued a career in home economics at the urging of her family.

She attended Tuskegee University on a full scholarship.

"At the time, it was one of the things that my family felt I should do, and that's why I chose it. But I enjoyed every minute of it," she said.

After college, Johnson taught school in Greene County for four years. During that time, she moved to Newton County with her new husband, Horace Johnson Sr.

She later earned a master's degree from the University of Georgia in extension education.

Johnson retired from the Extension Service on June 1, 1986, exactly 31 years to the day that she started.

Since then, she has remained active in the community, serving on the Board of Directors for the Covington Family YMCA.

She was appointed by former Secretary of State Max Cleland to the Ad Valorem Assessment Review Commission, a property tax appeals hearing body, in 1990 and served four years.

She serves as the chair of the Newton County Board of Tax Equalization.

She also manages Main Street Executive Suites, the former law office of her son, Horace Johnson Jr., a Superior Court Judge.

She is also the mother to daughter Yvette, who lives in Lithonia, and has four grandsons.

In 1999, the late Davis Morgan, at that time chairman of the Board of Commissioners, asked Johnson to write a letter detailing the changes she's seen in the community during her lifetime.

The letter was placed in a time capsule in the Newton County Judicial Center, where her son presides over court today.

Johnson is a member of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church, and is writing the church's history. She hopes to one day write her own autobiography. When she does, she'll be happily free of regrets.

"If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't change it. The journey I've had through life, I've loved it," she said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.