Dr. Johnson had strong determination to succeed, great faith, a captivating personality and generous love for people. He took his challenge at First Baptist seriously, leading it to greater prominence. Early in his tenure, he recommended that the position of pastor be full-time and a parsonage be built.
Upon completion of the parsonage, the church purchased an organ and started plans for renovation and additions to the church building. Work began in 1955, and was completed by fall of 1957, the same year that the General Baptist State Convention met at First Baptist for the second time.
Under Dr. Johnson’s leadership and work ethic the church burned its mortgage in 1961. Later in the 1960s, two used school buses were purchased to take people from their homes to worship services and other church events, since many still did not have their own transportation. In 1972, the church purchased a tract of land on North Main Street and used some of it to build a community swimming pool. Lots were made available for church members to purchase for improved housing. While Dr. Johnson was pastor, many church auxiliary groups came into being: The Deaconess Council, the Laymen League, the A-1 Missionary Department, and a departmentalized Sunday school. New musical groups were formed: The Celestial Choir, the Heralds of Joy, the J.J. Johnson Choir, the Gospel Choir, the Angelic Choir, and the Men’s Choir.
More than 35 members of the church decided to become ministers, including five women. The church also supported the home and foreign missions of North Carolina General Baptist State Convention, including Shaw University and its Divinity School, and Central Children’s Home.
During all the busy church work, the wider community became part of Johnson’s mission. For many years, Dr. Johnson broadcast a public-service program entitled “Black Perspective” on radio station WFMO in Fairmont. He was further involved in the town’s public life as a member of its Tri-Racial Committee. In 1966 he became the first black man to be elected town commissioner. He was elected mayor and served from 1989 to 1993.
He served as moderator of the Lumber River Baptist Association, chairman of the Robeson County Human Relations and Unity Commission, and president of the Robeson County Black Caucus.
Johnson also served his church at the state level. He was moderator of the St. John Baptist Association and a trustee of the General Baptist Convention and chairman of its executive committee, also serving as president from 1974 to 1978. He was president of the Southern Region of the National Progressive Convention of the United States of America in 1968.
Also at state level in the secular realm, he was a member of North Carolina General Assembly, the second black man to be elected since Reconstruction according to “The Making of an American Indian People” by Karen I. Blu (Cambridge University Press, 1980). He was chairman of the Committee on Human Resources in the House of Representatives. He served from 1971 to 1978 when he was appointed to the North Carolina Parole Commission, on which he served from 1978 to 1985.
He was secretary of the state NAACP, and a member of the State Executive Democratic Committee. He was a servant of higher education as a member of the UNC Board of Governors and a trustee of Robeson Community College. He was also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and a 33rd degree Mason.
After Dr. Johnson died in 1996 the General Assembly of North Carolina 1997 Session passed House Joint Resolution 683 honoring the memory of Dr. Joy Joseph Johnson. Later a portion of Highway 41 from Lumberton to Fairmont was named for Johnson.
Joy Joseph Johnson was born in Laurel Hill on Nov. 2, 1921, to William Joseph Johnson and Edith Buchanan Johnson, sharecroppers in the sandhills of North Carolina. He was one of 13 siblings, 10 boys and three girls. He attended the Scotland County Public Schools and graduated from the Laurinburg Institute in 1941, then from Shaw University in 1945. Later in life he received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Friendship College in South Carolina in 1965 and an Honorary Doctorate from Shaw in 1972.
Prior to coming to First Baptist Church in Fairmont, Johnson had been a bible teacher at Laurinburg Institute, pastor at Second Baptist Church and Bethlehem Baptist Church in Laurinburg. He also had been the pastor of the Unionville Baptist Church of Wagram and the Christ Memorial Church in Pinehurst.
He was married to the devoted and charming Omega Foster Johnson, daughter of the late Dr. and Mrs. O. P. Foster. She was born in Chatham County and received her elementary and secondary education in Burlington, then graduated from Shaw University with a B.S. degree in home economics.
Mrs. Johnson was a distinguished public servant in her own right. She taught school for 31 years, and was active in church and community organizations. Some of these were: O.E.S. Past Worthy Matron, Daughter of Isis, Loyal Lady United Order of Salem, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, serving as secretary.
She was a trustee of the of the General Baptist Convention and served on its executive and management committees and on the J.J. Johnson Baptist Assembly Committee. She was an executive board member of Woman’s Baptist Home and Foreign Missionary Convention, an adjunct of the State Baptist Convention.
The Johnsons had one daughter, Deborah Charita , who is married to Alexander Killens; they live in Raleigh. They have two daughters, Joy Alexandria and Jonee, and a son Mote. Deborah graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, and Alexander graduated from North Carolina Central University in Durham.
Dr. Johnson died on the date of his planned retirement, Dec. 30, 1996, after 45 years of service to First Baptist Church in Fairmont. Mrs. Johnson died on April 25, 2005.
Among a number of ways his name will go down in history are two college scholarships established in his memory: the first one given the Sunday before he died, for students graduating from Robeson County Public Schools; a second one to N.C. Central University for graduating students of the church he ministered to for so long.
Another way Johnson will be remembered is the fellowship building, completed in 1981, the “House of Joy,” where church members gather for special meals, study, fun and recreation. This house also serves the wider community, such as providing holiday meals for the needy, served in a festive setting.
I am indebted to Lena Katherine McMillin, B.G. Arnette, Terry Gilchrist and Janice Thompson for the information they provided, to Gerald Allen, Jackie Utz and Helen Sharpe for editing. On another note, I find myself pondering a prophecy fulfilled when his parents chose the name “Joy” for their baby boy who became a religious and political leader bringing hope to his followers.
Priscilla B. Leazer