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Yvonne J. Johnson: A Legacy of Service and Leadership in Greensboro


Earlier this year, the longtime leader announced that she would not be running for reelection to the Greensboro City Council and plans to retire from her full-time position as Executive Director of One Step Further, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources and alternative treatments to residents who have been in the criminal justice system.

“My thing is service,” said Johnson. “One of my favorite quotes is from Shirley Chisholm, and I have adopted it for myself. ‘Service is the rent we pay for being on this earth.’ I love that.”

A Greensboro native and graduate of James B. Dudley High School, Johnson’s longtime dedication to service and fighting for civil rights can be traced back to her freshman year at Bennett College and her participation in the F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.

Johnson earned a psychology degree from Bennett and a master’s degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. After a stint as a grant writer for her husband’s chemical manufacturing company, she went on to start her career at One Step Further in 1983, overseeing its growth from a mediation program with just one and a half employees to an organization offering ten programs with over seventeen staff members. One Step Further board member Andrena Coleman is slated to be the program’s next director. 

“She’s very capable,” said Johnson about Coleman. “She has great leadership and administration skills. And I’m going to help all I can. If she calls, then I’m there. I’m very confident that this organization will thrive and will continue to be an instrument to positively change lives for people.”

Johnson’s leadership in the nonprofit sector eventually spilled over into local politics when encouragement from a friend pushed her toward the Greensboro City Council.

“So, I thought about it. I said, let me pray about this. And I thought, I probably won’t win, but I’ll learn a lot about my city that I don’t know. And for that reason, I did it. And did not expect to win,” she said.

Johnson held an at-large city council seat from 1993 to 2007, followed by a mayoral term during which she made history as Greensboro’s first African American mayor and first African American female mayor. In 2009, she lost re-election to that seat but rejoined the council as an at-large city council member upon winning election again in 2011, this time as mayor pro tem. She currently holds that seat. 

Johnson has championed key issues throughout her public service, such as affordable housing, public transportation and workforce development.

“I’ve always been passionate about safe and affordable housing and good public transportation. I believe that areas that suffer from poverty, that don’t have the resources, are fertile ground for violence,” said Johnson. “That’s why one of the reasons I work so hard to get good businesses, and an agreement with them, that they will go through the job links program for training employees, and then some of these folks can get decent jobs that pay livable wages. That changes lives. I don’t know if anybody knows how to stop violence. But decent jobs help chip away at poverty.”

Johnson’s legacy includes pivotal milestones such as closing the White Street Landfill, renovating Morning Side Homes into Willow Oaks, and accepting the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. This year, the landfill issue has once again come before the city council as the city-preferred dumpsite for contaminated soil that will be extracted from Bingham Park. Johnson has kept her stance on not supporting the use of White Street Landfill throughout the many city discussions.

“Closing the White Street Landfill was one of the most passionate issues that I was involved in. I live near the landfill. I smelled it for years. I saw the trash drop off the trucks,” said Johnson who added, “I was proud that we were able to close the White Street Landfill. Claudette Burroughs-White (a former city council member) and I worked hard on that, convincing council that this was the right thing to do. And when we got an overwhelming majority of the council voting to close it, that was a monumental win for the people of Greensboro.”

Johnson has been honored with many accolades over the years for her dedication to public service, her leadership in the nonprofit sector and economic successes, particularly in communities of color. The most recent was the Lifetime Community Service Award in 2023 by Greensboro’s International Civil Rights Center & Museum during its annual gala that commemorates the anniversary of the desegregation of lunch counters in the South, the result of the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins, in which Johnson was a participant.

“It has been an exhilarating experience to see the growth and positive change in the city,” said Johnson. “I rejoice when groups of people in communities work together to get something they want. That really makes my heart sing. And I love helping people do that.”

Public service has also been an important piece in Johnson’s family life as well, with her late husband, Walter T. Johnson, who was one of the first African American students at Duke Law School and who later served as the chairman of the Greensboro Public School Board. He died in 2021. The Johnsons had four children, each of whom, like their parents, is in public service – Lisa serves as the Guilford County Clerk of Superior Court, and Walter Jr., Vernon, and Shannon are in the education sector.

Although Johnson will not be a member of the city council in the future, she says she will continue to be committed to community involvement post-retirement by volunteering, serving on boards and commissions, and supporting others in their political journeys. In addition to continuing to make a positive impact in Greensboro, Johnson hopes to spend time with her family and travel more after retirement. Places like Italy and Ghana are on her vacation list.

“I’m sure I’ll miss it. But whatever I can do in this city from now till I pass on away from here, I’m going to do it,” she concluded. “It’s humbling to know my service has inspired others.”

Yvonne J. Johnson