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When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

January 17, 2013 12 comments

The following story  explores one of the first intentional interracial housing developments in Omaha and perhaps anywhere in the Midwest or the nation as a whole.  The suburban New Horizons addition was created in the 1960s as a sanctuary free of the red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants that relegated blacks to specific, designated, and confining areas to live.  Blacks found no barriers to build or rent or move into New Horizons, where their neighbors might be black or white. This social action or experiment largely worked, too, though decades later the neighborhood has lost the diversity it once had and is now mostly white.  This story is very personal to me. You see, my late life partner, Joslen Johnson Shaw, grew up in New Horizons.  She was African American,  Her parents, George and Juanita Johnson, built there in 1969 and were among the first residents in the neighborhood, black or white. The Johnsons were barrier breakers in more ways than this.  They didn’t let racism or discrimination stand in the way of their aspirations.  Before moving to New Horizons Joslen accoompanied her folks to open houses and saw with her own eyes as realtors and homeowners shunned and ignored them.  As Joslen’s mother, Juanita, put it, “It was if we were invisible.”  My primary source for the story is Juanita, who still lives in New Horizons.  Joslen and I bought a home of our own in New Horizons several years ago.  It’s just around the corner from Juanita’s place.  I’m sitting in my office in that home as I type and post this.  The other main source is Joslen’s brother, Marty.  I wrote the story for them and in memory of Joslen and her late father, George.

 

 

Image result for When New Horizons dawned for African Americans in Omaha www.thereader

 

 

When New Horizons dawned for African-Americans seeking homes in Omaha

For The Reader (www.thereader.com)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

It took the civil rights movement to bring segregation in the United States into sharp relief. The South was the epicenter of the racial equality battle but American-style apartheid as well as attempts to dismantle it were everywhere, including Nebraska.

Omaha prides itself on hospitality yet African Americans here could not always live or or work or play or attend school where they wanted through the 1960s. In response to housing and work discrimination, for example, protest marches, sit-ins and other advocacy efforts organized.

With homeowners, realtors and banks discouraging blacks from white neighborhoods, it took extraordinary measures for blacks to integrate some sections of the city. One remedy was the creation of a new subdivision, appropriately named New Horizons, located on the then-western outskirts of the city, just off 108th Street between Dodge and Blondo and just north of Old Mill. The backs of the western-most homes abut 108th Street and the easternmost residences face 105th Street. Homes also extend from Nicholas Street on the north to Burt Street on the south. The interracial developers designed the new addition as an integrated neighborhood open to all. By all accounts their vision was fulfilled.

Situated in what was then-countryside New Horizons was established in 1965 and the first houses were built soon after on the tiered land. Corn fields stretched south, west and east of this built-from-the-ground-up neighborhood only a stone’s throw away from small working farms and stables. The two major east-west thoroughfares in the area, Dodge and Blondo, were two lanes each then.

 

 

10761 Izard St, Omaha, NE 68114

New Horizons neighborhood

 

 

This story chronicles the experiences of some past and present residents of this mixed race community, including what precipitated their moving there. They don’t necessarily view New Horizons as having been a social action or social experiment but that’s exactly what it was. It was revolutionary for the time, especially by Omaha standards, where even hometown icon and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson was frustrated in his attempts to move into the neighborhood of his choice. If he couldn’t find satisfaction, then every day people like George and Juanita Johnson stood little chance.

In the mid-1960s the Johnsons were a college-educated, two-income married couple on an upwardly mobile track, but neither their names nor their positions gave them any influence to change that era’s prevailing discrimination. He was a Benson High art teacher. She was a North High math instructor and guidance counselor. They’d recently started a family and next sought buying a new, larger home near a park and good schools.

The North Omaha residents had built a house at 38th and Bedford but having outgrown it they set their sights on moving to wherever they could find their dream home. As African Americans, however, their aspirational pursuits, like those of countless other persons of color, were blocked.

It was a time when blacks were routinely subjected to unfair housing practices, some subtle, others blatant, that effectively confined them to living in a small geographic area. Regardless of means, if you were black in Omaha then you had little choice but to live, as the Johnsons did, in the area bounded by Cuming Street on the south, Ames Avenue on the north, 40th Street on the west and 16th Street on the east. The northeast inner city became the black “ghetto.” Getting out of it required a migration not alike that of blacks migrating from the Deep South.

In many ways Omaha’s de facto segregation was as pernicious and long lasting as any on the books in the South, resulting in a divided city that clearly demarcated the Near Northside as Black Omaha. Red lining real estate tactics, discriminatory banking practices, restrictive housing covenants and unfair hiring standards made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to live and work in many parts of their own city, denied and discouraged simply due to the color of their skin.

Though blacks live everywhere in the metro today, Omaha’s geographic segregation persists – with most blacks in Omaha still residing in North Omaha – in part due to the lasting imprint of the housing discrimination that once ruled the day.

Better opportunities in education, employment and housing slowly emerged in response to equal rights pleas, marches, mandates, laws and court rulings.

“Things were just beginning to open up with schools and jobs and activities in Omaha but you had to look for them. You know, you would see pictures in the paper of things happening, of activities that should have been open to everyone, but because of restrictive housing they really weren’t,” says Juanita Johnson.

She says an entire apparatus or conspiracy of bigoted hearts kept white areas off limits to blacks. Realtors and others acted as overseers in steering blacks to all black enclaves or to undesirable neighborhoods deemed ready for integration.

“We contacted some realtors and they showed us some places north. They told us we could be blockbusters and open up some new neighborhoods,” Johnson recalls. “The realtors decided which areas were going to integrate and which areas weren’t. They would watch the housing trends and determine, ‘We’ll let this block go now.” But the neighborhoods they were offering to us didn’t show much potential, they didn’t look like they were going to stay good working neighborhoods, they didn’t look like they were stable. There were several for rent signs on properties.”

 

 

 

Juanita Johnson today

 

 

She’s sure some realtors she and her late husband George dealt with were merely “going through the motions” to placate them.  “They just showed us places that we would not have been interested in anyway – houses that were too small for what we wanted. We didn’t want a place that would have other houses six feet on either side. We wanted to find a house or build a house on a good-sized lot that had room for yard and play space for kids.”

Even though the Johnsons were eager and prepared to buy, it was as if their money was no good and their wishes didn’t matter. The more they looked for a home and were turned away the more incredulous they grew.

“We went to several open houses and at some of them it was as if we were invisible,” Johnson says. “I mean, they would greet people in front of us, they would greet people that were coming in behind us and it was just as if we weren’t there. I really can’t say there was anything (racial) said, it was more or less as if we were invisible walking through the places. We just thought they were stupid to behave in this way and we laughed at them.”

The Johnsons experienced the same frustration in their desire for a better life that the fictional Younger family encountered in Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun. Though the Youngers meet much resistance in the story, they eventually fulfill their goal of moving out of the inner city tenement they rent into a suburban home of their own. That play’s powerful dramatization, later adapted to the screen, made quite an impact on blacks facing the same issues in real life.

“I think that helped to motivate a lot of us in that it appeared to be possible and that this could happen to us as individuals,” says Johnson.

But there were societal-cultural roadblocks to achieving that dream. Being shunned, ignored and disrespected the way the Johnsons and so many of their black peers were elicited hard feelings in some, discouraged others and in the case of the Johnsons, motivated them even more.

The fact that we had been looking for a place and were just tired of running into barriers,” Johnson says, is what made the prospect of building a home in New Horizons “so attractive.” She says New Horizons represented a balancing-the-scales effort at “an integrated community of middle to upscale housing that was out far enough from the main part of the city that people wouldn’t say we were living in the ghetto – that we were in a suburban house just like anyone else.”

Moving to a racially blended suburb also promised a diversity fast disappearing in northeast Omaha, where white flight left the area predominantly African American. The suburbs also meant access to better performing schools.

“We wanted to be in a situation where we could have the best for our children, the best opportunities, and we wanted them to be exposed to the cultural advantages I knew other children were being exposed to,” she says. “We wanted our kids to have the opportunities to participate in whatever they were really interested in doing and not be kept out or let in because they were black. We knew we wanted an opportunity for the kids to have a really integrated education.”

 

Juanita, Joslen and George Johnson a few years before moving to New Horizons

 

 

Enter New Horizons. Its late developers were prominent Omaha veterinarian, Dr. A.B. Pittman, architect Golden Zenon and architect-civil engineer J.Z. Jizba. Pittman and Zenon were African American and Jizba was white.

For Pittman, New Horizons was an expression of a commitment to helping his own people realize their dreams and to bridging the divide between people of different races and creeds. He was president of the Omaha branches of the National Urban League and the National Council of Christians and Jews.

“My father was always concerned about getting people better housing,” says his daughter Antoinette “Toni” Pittman. “He was on the board of the Urban League Housing Foundation (now Family Housing Advisory Services), the Omaha Planning Board and the Omaha Housing Authority. Even before New Horizons he was involved in a housing development around 27th and Hamilton that the North Freeway took out. He was just concerned with people bettering themselves. He just did it, he didn’t talk about it.”

Pittman struck a personal blow for equal housing by buying a home at 97th and Dodge. In order to avoid potential obstacles or opposition he had a proxy buy it for him and then hand over the deed, explains his daughter, who grew up there. She says hers was the only black family there and fortunately they met no resistance.

 

Dr. A.B. Pittman

 

 

The Johnsons were friends with the Pittmans through the northeast Omaha Episcopal church they both attended, St. Philip’s.

“Probably George and A.B. and Zinnon had been talking about this and it just seemed it was available at the right time and we were in the right position to make that decision and build there. We were looking at getting settled before any more time went by,” says Johnson.

The Johnsons moved into their newly built split-level home in the spring of 1969. Their late daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw, was 9 at the time and their son Marty 4.

She says finally getting into the house they’d so long sought brought a mix of feelings, including relief.

“We were just real anxious to get settled in what we knew was going to be our permanent home.”

Another black family there with the same surname, though no relation, felt the same sense of accomplishment.

“I remember the day we moved in there my father standing in front of the house and being so proud,” says Glenda Johnson Moore, whose parents Walter and Bernice Johnson had weathered the same frustrations George and Juanita did in seeking a new home. “Who would have ever thought my father would have moved in that neighborhood? That was unheard of. It was great. I mean, it was a big thing.”

It was enough of a newsworthy event that the Omaha World-Herald did a story.

For the most part, New Horizons lived up to its promise, with a nearly 50-50 split of blacks and whites at the start. A Hispanic family also became early residents there.

“It worked out fine,” says Juanita Johnson, who adds that the neighborhood association and occasional neighborhood picnics enjoyed nearly even black and white participation. Her best friends there were black and white. She suspects most if not all the whites who moved into New Horizons were not looking to make any kind of social statement about diversity.

“I think they were people that really didn’t care, they were just looking for housing.”

That was true of Corinne Murphy and her late husband William, who built their home in 1970 directly north of George and Juanita’s. Though the Murphys knew about the open integration policy it didn’t factor one way or the other in their decision. “We were just looking for a place where they were building houses and this happened to be one of the places they were building them,” says Corrine. “I just liked the neighborhood. It had a nice park. There weren’t too many people yet.”

She says the idea of living in a racially mixed neighborhood “didn’t bother us” and that, if anything, she admired her new black neighbors, most of whom were professionals. “They were a lot smarter and better off than I was. They all had good paying jobs and were well educated. I got along with them all.”

She says her five kids became fast friends with the black kids in the neighborhood.

“Marty Johnson and my son Rory were very good friends. There was a time when they were walking home from school and kids were picking on Marty and my Rory just got right in the middle of that argument with those kids and made sure he got home OK. Yeah, they were best friends, they really liked each other. They still do.”

Marty says neither the white kids he befriended there nor their parents ever betrayed any hint of racism.

“I was always up at their houses playing and their parents were always very friendly and welcoming to me, and they’d always come down and play at our house.”

Whatever sport was in season, he says, neighborhood kids would join in playing it, older kids, young kids, black kids, white kids.

“Looking back on it now somebody driving by having no idea what this neighborhood was about would probably be really surprised to see all these kids of different colors playing together. It was probably very unique. I look back at it and I think, ‘Oh wow,’ it was probably pretty groundbreaking.”

Lee Valley, an adjacent neighborhood built around the same time as New Horizons, stood in sharp contrast because it lacked any diversity. The Horizons kids would occasionally challenge the Valley kids to a game of football or baseball and the marked difference in their makeup was hard to ignore.

“We were this totally mixed group of kids playing these white kids,” Marty says.

The area school Marty and Joslen attended, Edison, was all white until the Johnson siblings and some of their fellow black Horizons neighbors attended there. Marty says he never ran into racism in the neighborhood but did at school.

Glenda Johnson Moore also had a hard time adjusting to otherwise all white schools but her Horizons experience wasn’t all peaches and cream.

“The people that lived across the street from us were extremely racist,” she says. “We were called names. It got better eventually but you felt it, you absolutely you felt it. It was uncomfortable for a long time.”

Overall, she’s grateful to have grown up there.

“I’m glad I had the diversity. It’s made me a stronger person, it’s made me who I am today. I can communicate to anybody. It was a good place, it was a good thing.”

Juanita Johnson says she wanted her kids to have the enrichment that comes from diverse experiences because her “progressive” parents wanted the same for her. Her father Saybert Hanger was one of the area’s first black attorneys and a federal meat inspector. Her mother Ione Hanger was an elementary school teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and later taught at Creighton University. Johnson says her parents wanted full opportunities for all kids “and I was fortunate enough that they pushed and encouraged me to break barriers.”

At Omaha Central High, circa 1945, Juanita was the only black student on the year book and school newspaper staffs. She received her master’s from Creighton University at a time when few blacks attended there. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s  International House she resided with students from around the world and she attended interracial camps that attracted students from the four corners.

Similarly, her husband cultivated black and white friends growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa and he integrated Wayne State (Neb.) College.

It’s not coincidental both Marty and Joslen involved themselves in activities, including her showing horses, that meant interacting mainly with whites. Joslen integrated Brownell-Talbot School. Many of their friends were white. Each ended up with a white life partner.

Marty says, “I think my well-rounded life is because my parents were always exposing me to different things. They really were pioneers in a lot of different things. This was the pattern of their life –  breaking barriers. If there was a barrier they certainly eliminated it. They were groundbreaking and cool and somewhat courageous, too.”

His mother says all of it was meant to foster a time when “I didn’t want my children to have to look at the things they were doing as being barrier breakers. If they wanted to try out for something they could just go ahead and try and either be good enough to be accepted that every other child was accepted or refused because they weren’t good enough, but not because of their color.”

Juanita and George were also intentional about keeping their family’s ties to Omaha’s traditional African American community alive. For example, they continued attending their home parish, St. Philips, whose congregation was entirely black. Marty took music lessons from an instructor in northeast Omaha. Joslen was active in Jack and Jill, a social club designed to reconnect young blacks dispersed when their families moved from the Near Northside.

Marty says he appreciates “all that my parents exposed us to and always giving us opportunities. I feel very fortunate they made the choices they made. It’s pretty amazing to me how forward thinking they were.”

Juanita Johnson still lives in New Horizons and her next door neighbor is still Corinne Murphy. The neighborhood is not nearly as diverse as it once was and the homes show their age, but it’s held its own. Many old-line black residents have moved or died off and few new blacks have moved in. Johnson attributes the paucity of blacks there to the fact they have so many more options today. That was the whole point of New Horizons anyway – freedom to live where you want.

Now the metro’s replete with diverse neighborhoods just like New Horizons used to be and may be again.

 

American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and African regal ancestry

January 8, 2013 5 comments

Marty Johnson is the adopted brother of my late life partner Joslen (Johnson) Shaw.  About 1o years ago his search for his identity led him to the discovery of his birth parents and the story of their interrupted romance and his regal ancestry.  Marty was the product of a brief union between an American caucasian woman and a Nigerian foreign exchange student.  He grew up in an African American family in Omaha, Neb.  When I wrote this story Marty was just about to embark on a journey to meet his biological father, a tribal chief in Nigeria.  Marty comes from a long lineage of chiefs and by birthright he is a prince himself.  His journey became the focus of some national media coverage, including a GQ Magazine spread and an appearance by Marty and his wife Laura on “Good Morning America.”  For various reasons my story was never published, until now.

 

 

 -  Marty visiting family in Nigeria

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 Marty and Laura on “Good Morning America”

 

 

American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and regal ancestry 

©by Leo Adam Biga

The crowded, cantankerous West African nation of Nigeria, where ju ju charms still hold sway and civil unrest brews, is where former Omahan Marty Johnson travels in December for his initiation into a royal lineage he uncovered this year.

The 38-year-old mortgage broker, a resident of Eagan, Minn. with his wife Laura and their children, Alyssa and Jacob, is the rare adoptee to find exotic origins. The product of an illicit interracial union, he was adopted at age 3 by Omahans George and Juanita Johnson, then Omaha Public Schools educators and the parents of a daughter, Joslen. The black couple raised Marty as their own. They and their extended family were the only relatives he knew until a few years ago. All he knew of his biological parents is that they were college students.

His search for answers began in earnest two years ago when his birth mother, the former Kathleen O’Connor, contacted him and he tracked down his natural father, John Ogike. Marty was conceived during a 1964 summer fling in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was a pretty, red-headed Irish-Catholic University of New Mexico student visiting family in the college town, where her father headed the United Way, and he was a dashing Nigerian-Catholic exchange student studying for his master’s in education at the local University of Northern Iowa.

The unplanned pregnancy was scandalous and the idea of marriage, which Ogike proposed, impractical. She went off to a home for unwed mothers in Minnesota while he completed his degree and returned to Nigeria. Soon after his birth, Marty was put up for adoption.

For Johnson, who showed scant interest in his roots growing up, pursuing his Nigerian background has acquainted him with a large, wealthy, well-educated African family with a major presence in America and a prestigious position in Nigeria. What began as an odyssey to fill-in the missing pieces of his unfinished life has become something larger since the discovery early this year that as the first-born son of John Ogike, the latest in a long line of tribal chiefs among the Igbo (ee-boo) people in the southern state of Imo, Johnson is regarded as a prince and, by tradition, chief-in-waiting. The revelation he is the eldest son of the Ude-Ekeh, or chief came as news to the clan, none of whom knew of his existence, as his birth was kept secret by Ogike until inquiries by Johnson reached him two years ago.

As Johnson finds out new things about his rich family legacy, the emerging story is more than he ever bargained for, such as his late grandfather described as “a powerful man that ruled with an iron fist and served as one of the first senators in the Nigerian parliament after the country declared independence from Great Britain. Really, truly something new gets added to it each time I talk with my Nigerian family. It was all overwhelming from the beginning,” he said, “and so this royal thing is like, Oh, well, here’s another cool thing to add to my story. Now, what’s next?”

Next will be the pilgrimage he, his wife and children make to Nigeria during its December high season. The trip to the Ogike hometown of Old Orlu, a city of 1.5 million and the Imo seat of power, will mark his first face-to-face encounter with his father.

The journey, which NBC News is to chronicle, will coincide with a celebration commemorating the feats of Johnson’s grandfather. If the experience of a Nigerian-American cousin who visited her ancestral homeland for the first time is any indication, then Johnson will be feted like a prince during a spate of parties introducing him to relatives, including seven siblings he’s never met. He’s been told his father is likely to lavish him with gifts, but he doesn’t want special treatment. “For me, it’s just a part of my heritage. I’m excited to see what it’s like over there and to see how my family lives and to be able to honor them.”

 

 

Marty’s late sister, Joslen

 

 

Prior to learning his African ancestry’s high pedigree, Johnson ignored clues the family provided about the esteem in which his father is held and the respect he, as the eldest son, commands. First, there was a letter from an uncle Bonifice welcoming him “to the Ogike dynasty.” A second letter, from an aunt Theresa (his father’s oldest sibling) said he would need “to prove his claim” with photos of himself from early childhood on. “When they were saying these things I thought it was just some kind of African cultural terminology to call your family a dynasty and I didn’t think anything more of it,” he said.

He next got a sense for his lofty status visiting his aunt Uloma’s and her husband Hilary’s house in California. Now, he said, it’s clear the meeting was meant for John Ogike’s oldest, most trusted relatives to “check me out to see if I really was” his son. “My aunt Uloma opened the door, her eyes got big and almost the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Well, there is no doubt — you’re my brother’s son,’ because I do look very much like my father.”

An example of how avidly he’s been accepted by the Ogikes is the scene that played out when he and his family arrived at the home of a cousin in California. “We knocked at the door and one of my cousins opened it and he just stopped and stared at me and announced, ‘He’s here.’ Suddenly, people are pulling me inside and there’s like 20 of them talking and tugging at me,” he said. They sat us down and served us food. Everyone was talking. There was just this great outpouring of joy for me as their long lost cousin. It was just crazy…totally overwhelming.”

As he’s learned, “family is extremely important” to the Ogikes. “They’re very honorable, hospitable people,” he said. “They treat me as a lost family member they’re happy to see and want to make feel welcome. Now, it’s nice to be able to have these other people in my life who are family… because I know what family is.”

Still, it wasn’t until January when he first met one of his new siblings, a sister named Obianuju, that his elevated place was revealed. “That’s when she started asking, ‘What have you learned about our family?’ We told her we kind of knew this and that and who was who. And she said, ‘Well, you understand that because of who my father is you’re considered a prince in the Igbo culture?’ And I just kind of looked at her and went, ‘Huh? What do you mean?’ And she explained the Ude-Ekeh or tribal chiefs were, before there was central government, the main ruling people over large areas with the power to declare war and their children were all considered royalty in a sense. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s new.’”

Soon, talk turned to the inevitability of Johnson traveling to Nigeria to assume his rightful, privileged place among the elite clan. He said, “It was never IF you come to Nigeria, but always ‘WHEN you come to Nigeria…there will be a tremendously big celebration. My father will probably give you a house.’” His father’s slowly filling him in on more family lore and on what it means being a chief.

The next order of business was sorting out any problems among kin who may have viewed Johnson as an interloper infringing on their own favored status.

“It’s a big deal that I am the first born son. More so than I would have ever guessed,” he said. “Added to that is the fact I have three brothers, one of whom for 37 years knew himself to be the oldest son of John Ogike. So, one of the biggest concerns I had and that my cousins had was that my presence would be upsetting to him. But I have since actually talked to this brother and he’s been very welcoming, too.” Johnson, has no intention of usurping anyone’s position despite what he’s been told is due him. “It’s nothing that I want,” he said. “The royalty thing is so far off the map of what I care about. It’s just an interesting side note to what I’m about.”

However he feels about it, an American finding a princely African lineage extending back generations makes good copy and it made news in January when a Minnesota reporter filed a story. Picked up by the Associated Press, the item was widely published. He’s taken some ribbing along the way. “Oh, God, yes. People bowing to me, saying, ‘Oh, the prince is here.’ A local morning radio DJ gave me a hard time with cracks like, ‘If I were you, I’d be asking where’s the money.’ The implacable Johnson took it all in stride. The teasing took a harsher tone at Alyssa’s school.

 

 

 

 

Adding to the story’s appeal is the courtly, magisterial way Johnson, a large man with a dignified demeanor, carries himself. More than once, he’s been told that he looks the part of a prince. “He’s always been a gentleman,” his sister Joslen said. His regalness is most evident when wearing one of the majestic, flowing kafkans given him by his Nigerian aunts. His wife Laura hardly needed confirmation, saying, “I’ve always seen Marty as a prince. Everyone says this couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Marty’s so humble. At first he had me tell his story, and it’s fun to finally see him tell it as he identifies more with his African heritage.”

Johnson only researched his biological roots after prodding from Laura. Until then, he said, “I never felt compelled to find out. I mean, I had some curiosity, but no burning interest to actually take some action. I was so fortunate I grew up in a really good family and thankfully my life turned out very good.” After graduating from Omaha Central High School in 1982 and from Drake University in 1988, Johnson worked in the food industry in Des Moines, Iowa and St. Paul, Minn. before transitioning into the mortgage brokerage business in 1996. He married Laura in 1993 and it was she who got him to think about his origins. “Laura was always asking, ‘Aren’t you just dying to know?’” What turned the tide, he said, was the birth of their kids. “I thought I should probably find out something to, one, know about my parents’ medical histories and, two, if they’re still alive, get to know them.”

He’d just begun making inquiries with online adoption registries when an envelope arrived at his adoptive parents’ home from Catholic Charities addressed to John Martin Johnson.

“My mom, Juanita, called and said, ‘I think this is a letter you probably want to see,’ and sent it. It was a form letter saying, ‘Someone from your family would like to contact you…’ So, I filled in all the information and about three weeks later I got an e-mail from Kathleen Wang (O’Connor) saying she was my birth mother. She just happened to start looking around the same time I did. She said she was nervous and didn’t know what to say and basically I e-mailed back saying, ‘Hey, don’t be nervous, I was looking for you, too. Let’s talk.’ She called me about 10 minutes later. I told her about my two kids and my wife and I asked her if she has any other kids and she told me I have two sisters. We just talked about family and…really get into the details of the story. I didn’t want to put her on the spot the first time we talked because it had to be tough enough for her already.”

Between that conversation, some e-mails and visits they made to each other’s homes, mother and son “got to know each other.” He said when the time was right, “I asked the one question I’m sure every adopted child asks — why did you give me up? I was prepared for the worst. But for me it wasn’t so much knowing why as what was going on in her life that she had to make this kind of sacrifice. It had to be hard.”

 

Marty with his two moms, Juanita and Kathleeen

 

 

He found the adoption was the best option for a biracial child born to single parents who’d only known each other a few months and who lived on different continents. “My father returned to his life in Nigeria, where he and his brother ran a school their father founded. He later married and fathered eight children,” Johnson said. “My mother didn’t want to go to Africa. She just didn’t feel like it was going to work. Besides, she had this boy friend back in New Mexico.” She resumed her college studies, married and bore two daughters. She and her family have resided in California since the late 1960s. Ironically, all these years she’s lived 20 minutes away from John Ogike’s sister — and Marty’s aunt — Uloma, but didn’t know it until being reunited with her son.

As for his first three years of life, Johnson lived with two foster families before being adopted. He has memories of the farm he lived on, near Dubuque, Iowa, that his second foster family worked. He recalls the farm’s friendly dog, its fearsome, fenced-in bull, the litter of kittens he sheltered in a bed of hay inside the barn and the mewing dairy cows. He vaguely remembers the day he met the Johnsons, who drove up to Dubuque. Juanita Johnson said they took Marty out to eat and that he and Joslen interacted so well at a playground that “he seemed ready to join the family.”

 

 


The Johnsons, 1967: Juanita, Joslen, George

 

 

He remembers flying, escorted by a nun, on the propellor-powered plane that took him to Omaha to start his new life with the Johnsons, who promptly brought him to a picnic that found Joslen proudly showing off her gregarious little brother. “He talked so much,” Juanita said. “He didn’t seem to have any hangups. The most important thing was how well he and Joslen got along. She took his suitcase, showed him where they would be sleeping and got him unpacked.”

His adoptive mother is “glad” her son has found his blood roots. “I think it makes any individual more complete to know their background,” she said. She’s intrigued, too, by his impending African trip because her late mother traveled extensively there as a missionary teacher. For his part, he said, “I would love to be able to take my parents, Joslen, Kathleen and my other two sisters there some day.” Meanwhile, Marty and Laura are soliciting sponsors to help defray the cost of their Nigerian sojourn. They plan essaying their trip via video, still photography, audio and print in the hope of producing a documentary and/or multi-media presentation they can share with school and community audiences.

So, has he ever wondered what life would be like had he grown up in Nigeria? “Uh, for about half a second.” Despite the hoopla over his new found roots, he said, “I don’t place any more importance on that than the relatives I knew before. My family’s still the Johnson family. I just have more family. That’s the best thing about it. A question I get a lot is, How has this changed you? And it really hasn’t changed anything. I’m still just Marty. I just get to learn some things about me I didn’t know before. For me, this just kind of completes the puzzle of what I am.”

As Laura put it, “When all this broke, I was creating a family tree and now I just have to add more branches.”

With his African adventure still ahead, his story is “to be continued,” he said. Then there are the sagas of his birth mother’s family emigrating from Ireland and of his adoptive father’s grandfather escaping slavery, “but that’s a whole other story.”

 

 


Marty’s African halfl; Photo courtesy of Mark Seliger

 
 
 
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