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Jacksonville Area Legal Aid works to save the home of local golf and civil rights legend Arthur Leroy Johnson

Special to the News Top Stories

'These people, not knowing me from a can of paint, came in and just changed my whole life. They’ve been a tremendous help to me.'

Arthur Johnson beside his house

Arthur Johnson beside his house.

As a child in Jacksonville in the 1950s, Arthur Leroy Johnson would go get ice cream with his father and brothers at the Foremost Dairy in Riverside, the Jacksonville neighborhood where he has lived for nearly 40 years and where he is struggling to hold onto his two-bedroom home with the help of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

“My father worked two blocks from where I live today,” said Johnson, whose father was employed at the dairy. “At 5 o’clock in that neighborhood, all the Black people had to be out. There was a whistle that would blow. If you worked in that area, as a Black person you had to be leaving. The whistle was called Big Jim.”

In 1986, Johnson, who is now 80, became a homeowner in that very same neighborhood when he bought an 1,100 square-foot, aluminum-sided home from a woman who employed his mother as a domestic worker.

Johnson, who will be inducted into the African American Golfers Hall of Fame in May and had a successful career as a concert promoter, eventually ran into financial difficulties when prostate cancer and other health problems sidelined him from his job as director of First Tee – North Florida, a program that integrates golf with a life skills curriculum to help youth build strength of character.

He took out a reverse mortgage on the 1912 home, initially borrowing just $24,000. But living on $941 a month in Social Security, he was having trouble making needed repairs to his home. Unable to get insurance, he defaulted on his reverse mortgage. After fighting to hold onto his home for 12 years, he ended up owing a total of $140,000 to pay off the mortgage.

Johnson remembers when, in 1988, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development got the authority to insure reverse mortgages through the FHA when President Ronald Reagan signed the reverse mortgage bill into law, establishing the reverse mortgage government insured loan.

While a reverse mortgage does put money in people’s pockets, it is not without risks. No payments are required, but homeowners frequently have to deal with unannounced changes in their mortgage requirements and sloppy servicing of their loans. And often those risks fall disproportionately on minorities.

“The amount of Black people that have lost their property is incredible,” Johnson said. “It’s a good program, but you’ve got to stay on top of your responsibility to pay your taxes and insurance. As you get older, you’re not going to be able to keep up with that.”

Johnson says much of his life savings went into a 1998 lawsuit, Rowe Entertainment v. William Morris, that sought to stop discrimination in the music industry.

The defendants were Black concert promoters who asserted that they had been excluded from the market for promoting events with white music artists and major Black music artists due to racially discriminatory and anti-competitive practices.

Throughout his life, Johnson, who worked for famous artists such as Teddy Pendergrass, Prince, Luther Vandross, Run-DMC, and Rick James, fought for racial equality, and civil and human rights.

Arthur Johnson on the golf course.

Arthur Johnson on the golf course.

He learned about racial justice at the hand of his mentor and childhood neighbor Frank Hampton, who was among four golfers whose case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to integrate Jacksonville’s golf courses in the late 1950s, when Black golfers were only allowed to play on one day a week at the only public course at that time, Brentwood Golf Club.

“We couldn’t even go into the clubhouse to order a hot dog or a hamburger. We had to order through a window at Brentwood. They had a special side window set up, and we would have to go to that side window. I am 80 years old, but some things I can remember like yesterday.”

Johnson eventually attended Professional Golfers’ Association tour qualifier school in the early 80s and played on the United Golfers Association tour in the 70s and 80s. The UGA was founded in 1925 by and for Black golfers as a parallel institution to the then all-white PGA.

He took part in local marches associated with the 1964 Monson Motor Lodge protest, in which a St. Augustine lodge owner poured muriatic acid into a pool where Black and white activists had jumped in to protest the lodge’s white’s only policy for swimmers.

And he participated in groundbreaking protests that went on for years in Beverly Hills, Calif., surrounding Rowe Entertainment v. William Morris, which the plaintiffs eventually lost.

“I have a long history of fighting for rights,” said Johnson, who is now fighting for his home.

His allies in that fight are JALA attorney Lynn Drysdale and JALA Housing Counselor Marissa Vetter.

Vetter has worked to get a City of Jacksonville Foreclosure Intervention Program grant to help reduce the delinquent amount so that his payments going forward will be more manageable. Vetter has been working against the clock with a March 19 foreclosure sale date fast approaching.

“First, she had to see if we could use the money in this way, then she had to make sure Mr. Johnson met each of the requirements,” Drysdale explained.  “She was working with many moving parts and only one of her.”

After Johnson had a fall and then was in the hospital for COVID, Vetter went to his house to pick up the papers he signed and got notarized and pick up a check for the repayment agreement.

If all goes as planned, JALA will have saved Johnson’s home, at least for now.

“It’s been tremendous,” Johnson said. “These people, not knowing me from a can of paint, came in and just changed my whole life. They’ve been a tremendous help to me. They’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s and given me a road map for how to structure it so that I’ll be able to save the property. It’s hard to find two people who are all on the same page and just work so well together, and I’m speaking of Marissa Vetter and Lynn Drysdale.”

Johnson still faces financial needs, as his property taxes and insurance will take up more than 60% of his Social Security income.

He said he “can’t sugar coat or hide anything” and that he would be grateful for additional help.

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