Dorchester's Herschel Johnson’s life and legacy remembered

By Debra R. Messick, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 11/16/21

When news broke last week that Herschel Johnson had been called to a higher home, moving tributes poured forth from every corner, praising his contributions, but mostly the man …

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Dorchester's Herschel Johnson’s life and legacy remembered


When news broke last week that Herschel Johnson had been called to a higher home, moving tributes poured forth from every corner, praising his contributions, but mostly the man himself.

“Dorchester County lost a great champion of local history and heritage,” the county’s Tourism Department proclaimed. “His inspiring character, dedication, and kindness will be missed. We are grateful for all he did for Dorchester County.”

Maryland General Assembly Speaker Pro Tem and District 37A Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes remembered Johnson as exceptional among the many special people she’s been privileged to get to know and work with. She recalled the Oct. 27 Appreciation Service held in his honor at the Harriet Tubman Underground National Historical Park, where he was “showered with love and appreciation” by the many whose lives he had touched over the years.

“He had a tremendous impact, helping change the trajectory of this area’s history,” Sample-Hughes said. Noting how “very instrumental” he was in getting grants for the Stanley Institute and Maces Lane projects, she respected his clear vision and dedication to his mission, doing what was required to see it through to completion. From early on, he inspired her to support anything involving Harriet Tubman’s legacy, she added.

Former Dorchester County Tourism Director Amanda Fenstermaker recalled that Johnson was very humble, a “quiet giant of a man,” who never gave up, never lost faith, and accomplished great things by working hard and doing it all a little at a time.

As president of the Friends of the Stanley Institute, Johnson “spent years” saving and restoring one of the county’s last remaining one-room schoolhouses, where Black children were educated during segregation from 1867 to 1962, currently a stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway.

Johnson then added his energy and efforts to helping save and restore historic Christ Rock Church across the highway. Built in 1875, it’s one of the oldest surviving post-civil war African-American churches on Maryland’s Lower Shore. He also helped ongoing efforts to restore two other historic African American churches with ties to Harriet Tubman’s story — Malone’s Church and Bazzel Church.

As a consulting historian, Johnson assisted archeologists excavating the Bayly House in Cambridge and Harriet Tubman’s father’s homesite at Blackwater Refuge.

Historian Kate Clifford Larson, author of “Harriet Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land,” credited Johnson’s passion for learning and sharing the county’s local history and for humanizing it in a way that reached many.

“It’s wonderful when your work is valued by other academics,” Larson noted. “But it’s when local people truly appreciate and understand that it as an important part of the larger story of slavery and African American history, that it means the most. Herschel read as much as he could, and talked to as many people as he could to learn everything he could. He was a fantastic interpreter of that history, always available to share, whether it was one person showing up or a bus full of people, as well as being a most magnificent human being,” Larson added. 

Johnson also helped form the Maces Lane Alumni Association to help preserve the legacy of the building which served as the African American community’s high school during segregation, and to repurpose the now vacant building into a vital community center.

Johnson’s childhood friend, David “Nicky” Henry, the Cambridge born author of “Up Pine Street,” went to high school with him and dated his sister, he recalled with a smile. While he’s been away for a while now, Henry joined Johnson’s Maces Lane Alumni Association effort. When asked if he’d be in Cambridge for his old friend’s homecoming service at Waugh Chapel on Thursday, Nov. 18, he answered that “20 mule teams couldn’t stop me being there.”

William Jarmon, president of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, recounted his long association with Johnson, starting with playing pinochle with his cousin in Greenbelt, Maryland, and continuing through retirement when the two pursued twin passions of basketball and tracking their family histories.

Jarmon shared that Johnson had been a coach and referee with the Dorchester County Department of Parks and Recreation, which created an annual event in his name to help raise funds for the area’s youth basketball players. The two also enjoyed traveling to professional team games in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

The men then began attending historian John Creighton’s fourth Saturday morning discussions. “There we learned about our own roots,” Jarmon noted. Johnson’s family originated in East New Market and was descended from Sarah Young, who built a historic church on property received from her former enslaver.

A volunteer at the Tubman Museum while Johnson was raising funds for The Stanley Institute and Christ Rock Church, Jarmon began joining him as a partner in providing tours. Although the two stopped briefly two years ago, interest from American Cruise Lines brought the two back, until Johnson had to step away due to failing health. But Jarmon plans to fulfill an upcoming Dec. 3 tour for the group.

Among the many skills Johnson shared with community organizations, Jarmon praised his capabilities as a strong treasurer. He could be relied on to step in at the Tubman Museum, and he worked with the NAACP and the Board of Education, he noted.

Linda Harris, also with the Tubman Museum and Educational Center, first met Johnson during the planning stages of her inaugural September 2020 116-mile journey following the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, literally walking in Harriet Tubman’s footsteps from Cambridge to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Seeking historical guidance for the trek, Harris never forgot how he went the extra mile to help her.

“He generously drove me along the route from here to Delaware on two occasions, pointing out details that would help me navigate safely,” Harris recalled. Recently, Johnson helped her put down permanent roots in Dorchester County, selling her his mother’s house.

“He was truly a powerhouse in his efforts to preserve Cambridge history. He’s with the ancestors now, and they are taking good care of him,” Harris said.

Former Banner editor Paul Clipper remembered meeting Johnson shortly after starting with the paper in 2014. “He impressed me immediately for his capacity to care, not just for favorite projects, but for the community as a whole. He was a great, humble man, and I liked him immediately,” he recalled, also noting his engaging sense of humor, especially when he and longtime friend Jarmon were together. “I can’t imagine how sad his old friend is feeling since his passing, and certainly all his friends are feeling the same loss. He was a human treasure for this county and will be sorely missed.” 

In addition to his many other accomplishments, Johnson had a career presiding over the Federalsburg Post Office. One of his employees, Terri Blanchfield, worked for him for 16 years and remembered him as “the best boss, a wonderful person.” On the occasion of his retirement in 2021, his staff, who fondly referred to themselves as “Herschel’s Angels” composed a 13-stanza poem in tribute, recounting his humor and sunny disposition, professionalism and leadership, plus the many ways he expressed supportive caring to his team. “He was very special to us, we loved him very much, and cannot believe he is gone,” Blanchfield added.

A homecoming service for Johnson will be Thursday, Nov. 18, with the viewing at 9 a.m. and service at 11 a.m. at Waugh Chapel, 425 High St., Cambridge.