3716 N. 19th St
Mr. John E. Shackelford
Dear Mr. Shackelford,
I left home August 5, 1977 to attend an Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Convention in Atlanta. Upon my return, August 12, I found your letter. I keep myself almost too busy in Church, Health and Welfare Volunteer work.
Lessie Johnson was born April 4, 1889 in Orangeburg County, South Carolina. The nearest village was Cope, S.C. She was the seventh child of A. E. and Emma V. Johnson who ran a five-horse farm near the village of Cope. The school term in those days in Cope, S.C. was two or three months per year. Lessie went to school two or three years. She had at most the equivalent of nine (9) months of formal education during her whole life. She taught herself to read and write. When she moved to Elmsford, N.Y. her only way to keep in touch with her family was by writing and learning to read their letters to her. She wrote home each month. It took all of us at home to read or decipher her letters. She spelled phonetically. She improved her writing and reading through doing as the years passed by.
All the family moved to Asheville, N.C. about 1906 except father, A. E. Johnson, and one son, Howard. They remained on the farm. When our father passed, the family in Asheville was without any support.
Julia and Agnes had families, Lessie was single. The three sisters bought the property on Davidson and Valley Sts. - Julia and Agnes bought for themselves, Lessie bought for her mother, who at that time was in her majority of years with five young children; three were about 4, 8, and 12 years of age and two were in their teens, Lessie was one in her teens.
E. D. Fox, a real estate broker with office in New York City, and his family were visiting Asheville, N.C. about the year 1907. They made contact with Rev. C. B. Dusenbury, the pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church in Asheville. This meeting led to contact with the Johnson family. Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their daughter, Kate, met with Lessie and mother, concurring that she (Lessie) might go to work for this family in Elmsford, N.Y. To the best of my recollection they paid Lessie $4.75 (I know it was less than $5.00) per week. She ate and slept in the Fox home.
Lessie was with these strange, yet friendly people, for about 8 or 10 years before being able to return home to see her family. She saw no black people during all this time because at this time, there were no black citizens in the town or village of Elmsford, N.Y. Lessie often told us how afraid she was to leave the house and go anywhere by herself.
E. D. Fox owned considerable rural land in and around the village of Elmsford. E. D. Fox and family lived in this rural setting near Elmsford, N.Y. Mr. Fox commuted to his office in N.Y. City.
After Mr. Fox died, Mrs. Fox and family carried on the living in this rural setting. In years Mrs. Fox passed. The daughter, Kate, and her brothers, Cornelius, Edward Jr. and Tunicliff continued living in the family home in Elmsford.
About 1920, Lessie's canning of vegetables and fruit was so strikingly good that Mrs. E. D. Fox and her daughter, Kate, took delight in placing on exhibit in the Annual Danbury Connecticut Fair ten to fifteen items that Lessie canned. This went on each year for about twenty years or more. Annually, each item that Lessie entered received first, second, or third prize. Rarely did any of the items she entered fail to receive a prize of a kind.
The Fox brothers in time had families of their own and moved away. About 1940, Miss Kate Fox and her friend from youth, Esther Waterman, and Lessie decided to move to New York City into an apartment. Lessie remained with them until both Kate Fox and Esther Waterman died. The last of the two died in 1961.
Lessie came to live with my family and me in Phila. in 1961. She was quite independent, always was that way. She did not live with us, but she occupied an apartment in a house of mine very near to where we live.
Lessie greatly helped me (Fred S. A. Johnson) when I was pursuing my High School work at Tuskegee Institute (at that time I could not attend the Asheville, N.C. High School, even though it was not two blocks from our home, 40 Poplar St.). Lessie never gave me, to my recollection, any money. The Fox boys knew she had a brother and gave her their discarded shirts, ties, socks, etc. When Cornelius Fox passed she was given two of his formal wear suits. I still wear the pants now, on formal occasions.
When I entered Lincoln University, Penna. in 1923, she not only continued this kind of help, but she asked me to send my laundry to her. She mended and laundered them and sent them back to me. Money was exceedingly hard to come by in those days. I worked my way through both of these institutions. I have no recollection of her ever aiding me with money, but in many other ways, and this was true of her with just about all of her sisters and brothers. She, however, helped Mother monetarily.
Lessie joined the Berry Temple Methodist Church when she first came to Asheville, N.C. She continued her membership until her death. Each year she sent Berry Temple membership dues. You notice in her Will she included Berry Temple, the NAACP (when she intended to go to the National Organization). She also included the Cancer Society of Buncombe County, N.C., the Heart Research Organization of Buncombe County, N.C., the Organization for Blind persons of Buncombe County, N.C. She was very conscious that the above three organizations were predominately Caucasian. She gave very little place to racial prejudice, yet fully award of the injustice that existed because of prejudice.
Lessie seemed to have two reasons for making soap - (one) she had a formula which she felt she could put on the market some day, (two) she felt that by going around nearby selling her own brand soap she avoided being a target for robbers. She would be considered trying to keep ends together. Someday I might write a pamphlet on her life.
It was good of you to think of Lessie as you expressed in your letter. The only slight demurring, if any, I would have of a human interest story appearing is that I have not given sufficient to do her justice. She was a very great soul.
Fred S. A. Johnson
(Second letter continued on next page)
July 25, 1977
Dear Mr. Shackelford:
As I see things moving with my limited view and which the intent of my letter is to halter not.
I simply want to relate to you the history behind the Davidson, Valley and Marjorie Streets property.
Three of my sisters, Mrs. Agnes Sims, Mrs. Julia Wallace (Thelma's mother who became blind shortly after the birth of her second child, Beatrice. Julia's husband A. D. Wallace died shortly after the second child Beatrice was born), and Miss Lessie Johnson (who was then working for a family in White Plains, N.Y. for $5.00 per week and for whom she worked for more than fifty years) bought the above property about the year 1915 or 1916. (I can authenticate dates).
As years passed, Julia Wallace felt she should sell her part to Lessie. Lessie bought Julia's interest. Agnes was getting much older and her two children, Perry Lee Sims and Teerest Sims were adults. Agnes and Lessie decided legally to divide the property. The property was divided - Lessie 2/3 and Agnes 1/3.
Later, Agnes died, her estate was handled by the Trust Division of the Wachovia Bank & Trust Company. After quite a few years, Lessie purchased this property (Agnes' estate property on Davidson Valley & Marjorie Streets).
Lessie to my recollection never made a salary over $100.00 per month. However, the fact that she lived in, she received other advantages.
Neither of the three sisters finished grammar school. Lessie had less formal training of the three. However, she had much the larger heart of any in the family including me. She had a brilliant mind and her retention as unusual. Lessie had many unusual talents, a few, canning fruits, vegetables, and meats, growing of vegetables and flowers, she made soap etc. making her money bring her a return; she made friends easily and people loved her once they talked with her.
If I could have had my "rathers" I would like to have seen something happen with the property that might have carried her name in some way.
I knew their struggles to pay for and to maintain those properties. Since 1927, I living close to Lessie, we saw each other more often and I knew and helped her with her business.
At my age, (since her death), I see nothing in which I could or should have taken the lead as usual - when one takes the lead all the work falls on him or her.
I am writing only as an individual and without any serious misgivings.
Fred S. A. Johnson
P. S. If I write this letter over to remove some errors I am afraid I would be to long getting to it again.
Fred S. A. Johnson.