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Judge Tamara Harris Johnson: Living History in Birmingham, AL

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Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tamara Harris Johnson grew up in Birmingham’s College Hills neighborhood. Recently, she was awarded the 2023 Birmingham Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award — and she is the first African American woman to earn the recognition. (Provided)

By Sym Posey | The Birmingham Times

Whether it’s Black History or Women’s History, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tamara Harris Johnson has a resume that can qualify for both. Recently, she was awarded the 2023 Birmingham Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award—and she is the first African American woman to earn the recognition.

“I am very honored that the Birmingham Bar Association presented me with this award. When I looked at the recipients, there were names that I recognize who had made significant achievements in the legal community,” Harris Johnson said about the award, which was created in 1972 to recognize outstanding and distinguished members of the Bar.

As the 51st recipient, Johnson was just the sixth African American to receive the award.

Giants Of The Movement

Harris Johnson grew up in Birmingham’s College Hills neighborhood—also known as “Dynamite Hill,” … because Ku Klux Klan members regularly bombed its streets during the Civil Rights era—so she is aware of the city’s segregated past.

“A lot of people in my neighborhood were influential in the Civil Rights Movement, and I didn’t really realize their significance until later in life,” she said. “On my corner was Bishop Jasper Roby, [pastor of the historic 17th Street Apostolic Overcoming Holy (AOH) Church of God who also oversaw the building of the AOH Cathedral in downtown Birmingham]. The Rev. Joseph Lowery [founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and others] and his wife lived on the corner of our block. Jesse J. Lewis, [founder of The Birmingham Times], lived a few blocks over. Arthur Shores, [the renowned Civil Rights attorney known as Alabama’s ‘drum major for justice’], and his wife lived not too far up the street. My parents were friends with the parents of Angela Davis, [a political activist, professor, and author who was an active member of the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party], and I was friends with her brother. There were a lot of people who were important to me that I lived around and that were influential in my life.”

Still, Harris Johnson recalls feeling very protected from racism while she was growing up.

“An example of that is when we traveled,” she said. “My father would be sort of anxious. At the time I didn’t realize that it was because a lot of the places along the way would not allow us to use the restroom. He and my mother bought me a little metal blue pot with yellow polka dots. I wish I still had it because it made me think I was little princess.

“Whenever we would have to stop, I would use the pot because [my parents] told me how nasty public restrooms were. They turned what could have been a horrible and ugly experience into something that gave me a lot of confidence,” she said.

“You Have a Purpose”

Harris Johnson was born in Nashville, Tennessee, while her father was attending Meharry Medical College, one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health science centers.

Her family later moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her father completed his internship and residency in obstetrics and gynecology. Then, in 1961, her family moved to Birmingham with the intent of her father joining his father, Samuel Francis Harris, M.D., in his medical practice.

“I was in the third grade when we moved to Birmingham. I remember when I came back that I was kind of afraid in a way because of all the things you would hear about the South.

“Even as a child, even though we would visit, I remember telling my mother, ‘That is where they hang Black children.’ That was the vision I had in my mind even as a child,” said Harris Johnson, who graduated from the now-closed Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School in Birmingham’s Smithfield neighborhood.”

She was one of the first group of African Americans to integrate Ensley High School, which she attended for two years, and she subsequently graduated from Ramsay High School.

“There was a group of us that attended Ensley High School. We integrated it, and it was miserable for us because it was just a racist environment. If I was talking to someone who was white, I would overhear teachers as they pulled students aside [and told them] if they said anything to me, they would tell their parents. We would tell our parents we didn’t want to be there, but they would tell us, ‘You have a purpose.’”

Following Her Own Path

Harris Johnson’s maternal family primarily worked as educators, and her paternal family primarily worked as health care professionals. She followed a different career path, but she did not initially aspire to be in the legal profession.

Harris Johnson’s father wanted her to go into the medical field, but she “hated science and could not stand the sight of blood,” she said. On several occasions, her father would take her to the hospital to see him perform surgeries, but it did not appeal to her.

“I thought I wanted to be an actress,” Harris Johnson said. “Then I wanted to work in the United Nations building to be an interpreter. When I went to Spelman College, [in Atlanta, Georgia], I was going to be a foreign language major, but they did not have the languages I really wanted to study. … I chose political science because my parents kept telling me I was a good lawyer just by how I would rationalize things when I was a child.”

Growing up, whenever Harris Johnson wanted to do something that her parents disagreed with, they would let her “plead her case,” she said.

“It was a precursor to me going into law in the first place. We would sit at the table, and they would say, ‘Tell me why you think you should do what I said you can’t do.’ Then one of three things would happen: Sometimes, they would tell me that I convinced them, and they would reverse their decision; other times, they would tell me no; and the third one was interesting because they would tell me that I shouldn’t be denied, but what I wanted to do required a financial component.

“They would say, ‘We are not going support something financially that we don’t want you to do. So, while, in theory, you can what you want to do, practically, you have no money to finance it.’”

“He Saw Something In Me”

In 1974, Harris Johnson earned a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree from Spelman College, where she studied political science with a minor in English. She then attended Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., and earned a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.

“Even after graduating from Spelman, I had no desire to be a lawyer,” she said. “But my father gave me a proposition—either I get a job or I go to law school. So, off to law school I went. He saw something in me that I guess I did not see in myself.”

Harris Johnson would go on to become the first African American woman to serve as Birmingham City Attorney, a position she held under the administration of former Mayor Bernard Kincaid. She also was the first in-house counsel hired by the Birmingham Public Schools system, where she was hired under interim superintendent Geraldine Bell.

Harris Johnson is the proud mother of daughters Erica Nicole Parker, M.D., an emergency medicine physician, and Maj. Ashley Noelle Johnson, a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps (JAG Corps) lawyer licensed in Washington, D.C., California, and New York.

She has a son-in-law, Joel L. Parker, M.D., also an emergency medicine physician, and two grandsons: Caden and Harrison Parker. She has two sisters: Tollese Harris Bankett, M.D., a pediatrician in Maryland, and Terea D. Harris, M.D., a retired internist and infectious disease specialist in Michigan.

“I am very family oriented. I am extremely proud of both of my daughters. Ashley is a member of three of the hardest Bars in the country, and she was a part of the Peace Corps. She will give you the shirt off of her back. [Erica] is a physician. They both are some of the kindest people I know,” said Harris Johnson, who doesn’t travel much unless she is going to visit her daughters.

“If I am not in Florida seeing Ashley, I am in Tennessee visiting Erica and my grandsons,” she said. “They are what fulfill me, and I just enjoying seeing them and being with them.”