VICKSBURG FACTS: Native son makes history in Jackson

Published 8:00 am Friday, August 4, 2023

By Vera Ann Fedell | The Vicksburg Post

Did you know that a Vicksburg native became the first African American mayor in Jackson?

Harvey Johnson Jr. was born in Vicksburg in December 1946 and was an only child in his family. Johnson graduated from Rosa A. Temple High School and then went on to obtain his bachelor’s degree in political science at Tennessee State University in 1968. While attending Tennessee State University, he met his wife, Kathy Ezell. In 1972, he received a master’s degree in political science from the University of Cincinnati, according to Black Past. 

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Johnson planned on staying in Cincinnati and attending law school; however, he was prompted by his father to return to Mississippi. After his return in 1972, Johnson found a job as a community planner in the Mississippi governor’s office. He then went on to serve 25 years in the field of planning and community development.

Johnson also was an assistant professor of political science at Jackson State University. At JSU, he taught graduate-level courses in public administration. He also directed the Center for Technology Transfer and was a member of the Mississippi State Tax Commission and the Mississippi Gaming Commission. Johnson served as a captain in the United States Air Force, according to an article from WLBT dated April 21, 2009.

Before running for mayor, Johnson committed most of his time to helping small towns with poor economies and developed new leadership that aimed in aiding in basic necessities, like water and sewer service. He was also the founder and executive director of the Mississippi Institute for Small Towns, a nonprofit agency that helped multiple towns in the Delta with housing, infrastructure and development according to WLBT. 

Johnson first ran for mayor of Jackson in 1993; however, he was unsuccessful. In June 1997, he made history by becoming the first first African American mayor of Jackson. Johnson won 70 percent of the vote.

He then went on to serve two terms until 2005. In 2009, he ran for mayor again and was elected for a third time and served until 2013 according to Black Past. 

During his terms as mayor, Johnson was on the U.S. Conference of Mayors Advisory Council, served as Chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Urban Economic Policy Committee and as President of the National Conference of Black Mayors. He was also a member of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors, the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors and served on the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Municipal League, along with serving on the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Committee, according to WLBT.

During his administration, Johnson did have some protests when he was charged with not cooperating with the surrounding Hinds County government and allowing a controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to speak in the city, according to Black Past. 

Johnson left the mayor’s office known for his contributions to transforming the city by reestablishing the downtown area. When he was first elected, his administration aimed to create a strong business class, particularly among African American people, create quality jobs, increase the tax base and improve city services. He also started the “Building the Best of the New South” project to help improve basic city services like trash collection, repairing crumbling infrastructure, street maintenance, improving efficiency and customer service in city agencies, establishing programs for youth and anti-crime initiatives.

In his administration he was also able to revitalize one of the nation’s oldest African American neighborhoods, Farish Street Neighborhood Historic District, and built a convention center for the city, according to WLBT.