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(Afrik-News) — Johnson was the only child of Leroy Johnson and Gertrude Jenkins Johnson. His father was killed in a sawmill accident when he was 8 years old. The following year, 1927, his mother married James Williams, who worked as a bakery shop deliveryman. The family valued education highly and impressed its importance upon young Johnny (the name with which he was christened) during his formative years. For blacks in Arkansas City, public education ended at the eighth grade because there was no public high school for them, and laws mandating racial segregation prevented blacks from attending the high school for white students.

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