Plans for a commissioned bust of the late Judge John D. Johnson were revealed at a reception recently. Johnson, who lived from 1913-2011, was one of Miami-Dade County’s pioneer Black judges.
Johnson was the second Black judge to be appointed by the city of Miami. Miami’s municipal court system included a district that served the Black community. Known as the Negro Municipal Court, it was established in 1950 in the Negro Police Precinct.
The reception was held at the Black Police Precinct Courthouse and Museum in Overtown, where Judge Johnson’s bust will be housed. Law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP commissioned Johnson’s bust, which is being sculpted by artist Brian R. Owens.
The bust is currently being modeled in clay. It is still a rough draft that will be edited and refined until it is ready to be reviewed by the museum, Owens said in a statement. Once approved, he will move on to completing the bronze bust as a separate project. The bronze is expected to be completed in the fall.
Owens said he’s happy to sculpt Johnson’s bust for multiple reasons.
“I get to deploy my skills and add something positive to the world’s objects and ideas. The bust and the Museum [are] part of a unique story within the African-American experience. I work on historical projects like this with the constant awareness that men and women like Johnson built the foundation that I operate on,” Owens said. “It feels as if I made the foundation - as if I’m the sole author of my life and yet I know that is not the case. I’m one who had the opportunity. I’d even go so far as to say that I don’t have the right to fail.”
Johnson didn’t have the right to fail, either, according to history.
Johnson was raised in Overtown. He was in the 1931 graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School. He attended West Virginia State College and Howard University, where he obtained his law degree.
He used his law education to fight against racial inequality and segregation. He is known for creating some of Miami-Dade’s social programs.
The Florida Bar in a 2001 wrote an article entitled “City of Miami honors its black legal pioneers : “On April 19, 1950, City of Miami Commissioner Robert L. Floyd nominated Lawson E. Thomas (deceased) to be a municipal judge. He was unanimously appointed by the city commission to preside over the new court, becoming the first black judge in the South since the Reconstruction era, and presided over the court throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. In the late 1950s, John D. Johnson was also appointed as a municipal judge over the ‘Negro Municipal Court,’ becoming the second Black judge to be appointed in the City of Miami. The court’s jurisdiction was abolished in 1964, and the cases were integrated with the other municipal courts in the city.”
The honor for Johnson is a part of celebrations of the law firm’s 20th anniversary in South Florida. The reception was staged in partnership with the Kozyak Minority Mentoring Foundation. About 170 guests attended the event held April 17, including more than 35 judges.
Hunton Managing Partner Juan C. Enjamio said honoring Johnson gives the firm a chance to highlight Miami’s history in a “meaningful way,” as it marks two decades in the area.
“We felt that recognizing a pioneer like Judge Johnson and showcasing an important piece of Miami’s history would be a special way to demonstrate our commitment to the community and to honor those who had the courage to pave the way,” said Enjamio.
John Kozyak, founder and managing director of the minority mentoring foundation, acknowledged Johnson’s illustrious career and the honor from Hunton. Kozyak, who credits his success to mentorship he received, founded the minority mentoring organization because he noticed a lack of support. The organization was founded to help Black law students but includes all minority groups. The reception supported Kozyak’s summer fellowships, which awarded a scholarship to Richard Perez.
“Commissioning the bust of Judge Johnson, as well as funding one of our KMMF fellowships, shows that Hunton recognizes our history and is committed to our future,” said Kozyak. “Judge Johnson had an extraordinary legal career and his legacy lives on as we recognize the role he played in helping to break down racial and social barriers in Miami.”
H. T. Smith, founding director of the Trial Advocacy Program at Florida International University College of Law and board member of Kozyak foundation, pointed out that all should know what was the original purpose of the precinct building where Johnson’s bust will rest.
“This history had been buried, but we are grateful that people can now understand the context and subtext of what was going on at that time by visiting the museum. In this way we keep the history alive,” said Smith.