Remembering a ‘pillar and voice’ for Cambridge

By Debra R. Messick, Special To Dorchester Banner
Posted 10/26/22

On historic Pine Street in Cambridge last year, a series of banners were raised to commemorate those who had dedicated themselves to making a difference.

Some, like Harriet Tubman and Gloria …

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Remembering a ‘pillar and voice’ for Cambridge


On historic Pine Street in Cambridge last year, a series of banners were raised to commemorate those who had dedicated themselves to making a difference.

Some, like Harriet Tubman and Gloria Richardson, have had their contributions noted in history books. Other names have appeared on public buildings.

One, Portia Johnson-Ennals, never held political office and shunned the limelight. Yet, through her tireless life of proactive service, conducted largely behind the scenes, she made countless contributions.

On Oct. 16, granddaughter Shamya Johnson and her family said a final farewell to Johnson-Ennals, two years after she suffered a debilitating stroke.

Throughout her life, Ennals-Johnson had also dealt with epilepsy, always managing to battle through.

In the days since, Johnson has revisited a trove of newspaper clippings and photos which marked her remarkable journey. And, in the obituary she composed, along with the personal and family milestones noted, Johnson noted that her grandmother was regarded as "the Pillar and Voice of our Community."

Even with a full plate of work, church and family, Johnson-Ennals found joy and purpose in pitching in, volunteering precious time and service to countless community organizations.

She made it a personal mission to attend City Council meetings, to determine how things needing to be done could be addressed and achieved.

But she also poured her own insight and energy into creating venues to help others, especially youngsters.

As Johnson recalled in her grandmother's obituary:

"One of the first initiatives that Portia started was when she recognized that under-privileged youth needed help transitioning into the working world to become productive adults; she developed the Community Youth Employment Program. The program empowered youth to overcome the stigma of living in low-income housing, the welfare cycle, and being unemployable. The program provided summer employment, educational opportunities and one-on-one mentoring."

She was appointed to the Eastern Shore Volunteer Network by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, The Citizen Review Board for Children (formerly Foster Care Review) by Gov. Parris Glendenning and the Citizen Review Panel for Children by then-Dorchester Commissioners President Thomas A. Flowers.

She was youth coordinator for the Pine Street Committee of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and a founding member of the Cambridge Empowerment Center.

Many of her efforts and concerns regarded housing and other fundamental life issues, particularly affecting those in the 2nd Ward. But she devoted her considerable energy to the wider community as well, working with Cambridge Main Street, the Dorchester County Association of Taxpayers, the Cambridge Police Citizen Advisory Board, the Mid-Shore League of Women Voters, the city of Cambridge Americans with Disabilities Act Committee, the Charter Review Committee, along with numerous others locally, regionally and statewide.

Fittingly, Ennals-Johnson's passing was noted at the start of last Monday's Cambridge City Council meeting.

When asked about her legacy to the community, Mayor Stephen Rideout later said:

“I met Portia a year or so after we moved here in 2010. I had been trying to learn more about local programs for children and was introduced to her in regard to the Empowerment Center. I could see that the program was struggling for funding and was run solely by volunteers, but found Portia to be one of the most ardent supporters of the work of the center.

“She became a friend. We would have great conversations about kids and things to do to improve their lives, and she knew what she was talking about. I was saddened when she fell ill a couple of years ago and had to be in care. She was a great resource in this community for the children and families of Cambridge and her voice and vision will not be silenced by her passing."

While the clippings and photos helped her granddaughter review the array of ways she'd helped make a difference, Johnson's own memory bank is forever filled with the countless times she had "tagged along," as she called it, seeing up close the many ways her grandmother helped others.

A lifelong mentor and supporter, Johnson recalled that her grandmother, knowing she liked photography, purchased her first camera for her, later pressing her to use those skills in service of others, directing her to spend hours on end photographing dilapidated neighborhood houses in need of repair, then bring the pictures to a City Council meeting.

Shortly before she passed, 2-year-old great-grandson Karsen reached out his hand and said goodbye. When asked how she'll help him her son remember the community servant, Johnson didn't hesitate.

“I'll remind him that he comes from greatness, and that he should always speak up, and always be respectful about it."

Two public viewings will be held: Friday, Oct. 28, 5 to 7 p.m., Henry Funeral Home, 510 Washington St.; and Saturday, Oct. 29, noon to 2 p.m., Waugh Chapel, UM Church, 425 High St.

A celebration of life will begin at 2 p.m. at Waugh Chapel UM Church.

Donations can be made to New Beginnings Youth & Family Services, 522 Greenwood Ave., Cambridge, MD 21613, or Epilepsy Foundation Maryland, 3540 Crain Highway, Ste. 675, Bowie, MD 20716.

Arrangements are in the care of Henry Funeral Home in Cambridge.

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