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Tamara Harris Johnson: ‘Daughter of the Segregated South’ and Advocate for the Voiceless

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Tamara Harris Johnson (Ebone' Parks, The Birmingham Times)

By Ebone’ Parks

The Birmingham Times

Tamara Harris Johnson (Ebone' Parks, The Birmingham Times)
Tamara Harris Johnson (Ebone’ Parks, The Birmingham Times)

Tamara Harris Johnson considers herself a ‘daughter of the segregated South’ because of her family’s rich history and involvement during the civil rights movement in segregated Birmingham.

Johnson grew up on what is known as “Dynamite Hill” the nickname of a district of Smithfield, primarily on Center Street, where a series of bombings were designed to intimidate African Americans living in the community.

She was one of the first African Americans who integrated Ensley High School, spending her 9th and 10th grade years there.

Johnson has seen her share of change in the city.

“There has been change, and there has been some positive change because I’m not going to say that nothing positive has come about, but it certainly has not been at the speed or significance I would’ve hope it would be,” said Johnson.

She added that she’s disappointed in racial attitudes, and how they have yet to change over a course of 50 years. “That’s not to say that we have not progressed, or everyone has the same attitude, but I would’ve hoped in 50 years it would’ve been a more inclusive receptive environment,” she said.

Johnson’s family has deep civil rights roots: Her grandfather, Dr. Samuel Francis Harris, was one of the first African American physicians in Birmingham, a graduate of prestigious Meharry Medical College. Her father, Dr. Samuel Elliott Harris, was one of two obstetricians and gynecologists in Birmingham who provided quality medical care to everyone regardless of socio-economic status. Her uncle and aunt, A.G. and Minnie Gaston, formed businesses in Alabama and paid bonds for civil rights activists jailed during the civil rights movement.

“My family believed in education, and they had instilled in my siblings and me a strong work ethic,” said Johnson.

Those are principles she instilled in her two daughters, Dr. Erica Nicole Parker, an emergency medicine physician in Indianapolis, and the youngest, attorney Ashley Noelle Johnson, who recently returned to the U.S. after completing a Peace Corps assignment in Kyrgyzstan.  She taught her daughters to be secure and confident and to not let anyone define their dreams.

It’s a lesson she also shares with a number of others through her work with countless organizations including Jack & Jill of America, Incorporated; the National Legal Advisors Committee for The Girl Friends, Incorporated and The Links, Incorporated.

“Everyone defines his or her ‘role’ by the actions they do.  I have defined my ‘role’ as a woman, mother, attorney, friend and citizen as a person who supports equal rights for everyone and as someone who has been, through the course of my career and relationships, the voice for the voiceless,” she said.

Johnson has worked as a defense attorney and a prosecutor. She has worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and has practiced law in Washington, D.C., Michigan, California, Georgia and Alabama and was the first female and first African American hired as a labor union attorney to represent the International Brotherhood of Police Officers in Washington, D.C.

“Everything that I’ve done I’ve done it on both sides of the fence so that I know that there’s a balance when dealing with issues and facts, people and recollections,” she said.

Johnson said she does what she can to ensure that everyone is treated equally and fairly.

“I think that everyone has an obligation to, and a responsibility to, reach down and help somebody else . . . because I didn’t get where I am by myself or on my own and I think we have a responsibility to help those that need help,” she said.

“My parents instilled in my sisters and me a profound self confidence in knowing that we could become anything that we wanted to become and for which we worked hard. I live by two principles: ‘Treat others as I want to be treated’ and “For unto whom much is given, much is required.’

In her free time, Johnson enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, hanging with friends just to have good conversation and reading. One of her favorite places to go is fish markets because of her love for seafood.

She plans to continue to live by proving people wrong when they say she can’t do something.  “You cannot let people run over you, dampen your spirits, take away your security and make you feel that you can’t accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish,” she said.