Horace Johnson was the first black attorney to practice in Newton County and the first black judge appointed to the Superior Court in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. Two years after his sudden death, his wife shares memories about their life together and her gratitude for the community that remembers him so fondly.
by Kari Apted
Walking by the Judge Horace J. Johnson Judicial Center in downtown Covington, a new resident may wonder what accomplishments merited having the courthouse named for someone. However, one does not have to search long before finding a great story about the distinguished leader.
You might hear about Johnson’s childhood in Newton County’s historic Sandhill Community and how he attended Ficquett Elementary School while it was being integrated. Someone could point out his numerous community and professional awards. Multiple people would inform you that he was the first black judge to serve on the Superior Court in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. A person in his inner circle might mention the adoption case he wrapped up the hot summer night before COVID-19 stole his last breath. Talk to his sons, James and Bryant, and you will hear about a father who made sure they never lacked for anything. If you ask his wife, Michelle Bryant-Johnson, you will learn how deeply and how well he loved everyone.
“People loved Horace,” she said. “So many people tell me how much they felt his love and how much they still miss his presence now. He loved being a mentor to our boys; he loved his mom and sister, his nephews and nieces, his friends.”
Johnson deeply adored his wife, too, falling in love with her the very day they met. A mutual friend introduced them at a Christmas party, and the rest—as they say—is history.
“I was home for the holidays. I’d finished my graduate work and was moving to California after Christmas. Horace took up all my time at that party, and he called me every day after it. I was supposed to call him but didn’t, so he had to call and ask why I hadn’t,” Bryant-Johnson said with a laugh. “Then he came to visit me in California the following February. I moved back to Georgia, and we got married in 1988.”
“I like to say he was a lawyer’s lawyer, a friend’s friend and a brother’s brother.”Michelle Bryant-Johnson
Bryant-Johnson loved city life in Atlanta when the couple married and never imagined living in a small town. However, her husband’s heart remained in Covington, and he had always wanted to serve on the bench in Newton County. When Bryant-Johnson told her family and friends they were relocating to Covington, they were surprised. “My family was like, ‘What? You’re going to live where?’” Bryant-Johnson said. She had even tried to postpone the inevitable. “He was ready for a family. We were living in a two-bedroom townhouse, and I told him my babies were royalty and would need a nursery, thinking it would help him wait a little. No, he built a house right away.” Over time, Bryant-Johnson came to cherish Covington herself. “It’s really a special place. It takes a village, and we have a village here.”
It was there for the young family as Johnson began building his legacy in the county’s legal community. The Johnson boys attended the same Newton County schools as their father. By then, Ficquett was a theme school with a waiting list.
Always community-minded, the entire Johnson family has long been involved with the Arts Association in Newton County. In fact, Johnson served as one of its original board members. “Horace had a beautiful voice. He sang in the choir at church and in the arts association’s productions,” Bryant-Johnson said. She still has the Harry Potter book set the association gave them when James was born.
Johnson was an attorney in private practice for 20 years. In 2002, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes appointed him as the first black judge to serve on the Alcovy Judicial Circuit. During his tenure, Johnson created the Parental Accountability Court, which helps parents become consistent with child support payments. He also initiated a Veterans Treatment Court that diverts eligible veteran defendants to a specialized criminal court. The program continues to help veterans with felony charges and mental illness or substance dependency connect to mental and physical health professionals. Johnson was part of many distinguished organizations, including the Kiwanis Club of Covington, Leadership Georgia and the Washington Street Community Center. He was a founding board member of Newton Mentoring Inc. and was on the first advisory board for the Newton County Boys & Girls Club. He received numerous accolades, from Leadership Georgia’s Frederick B. Kerr Service Award to the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce’s R.O. Arnold Award.
While her husband climbed the judicial ladder, Bryant-Johnson built her career in the pharmaceutical industry. She was also an instructor at Georgia State University and worked for the NCAA. Their oldest son, James, went on to graduate from William & Mary and now works as a vice president and wealth advisor at Truist Wealth. Their second son, Bryant, lives in Boston and is pursuing a master’s degree at MIT while working for Meta.
Everything was going well for the high-achieving family until the coronavirus pandemic struck. Johnson died suddenly from COVID-19 on July 1, 2020. His death blindsided his family, as his illness had not seemed severe. Although he had experienced some gastrointestinal issues, he never ran the high fever that was common with the virus.
“Horace was tested on a Thursday, got his positive result on Monday and passed away on Wednesday. We didn’t even get a chance to go to the hospital,” Bryant-Johnson said. “We were completely caught by surprise.”
Bryant-Johnson felt her Covington “village” surrounding them the most at this tragic time, as condolences, prayers and support flooded in. After Johnson’s death, Newton County government officials renamed the Judicial Center in his memory. Oxford University renamed a building in his memory, too, changing Language Hall to Johnson Hall. Johnson’s lifelong friend, Dr. Avis Williams, still misses his perpetual smile and positive presence.
“Horace and I were three weeks apart in age and grew up in the same neighborhood, the historic Sandhill community in Covington. He was born on Nov. 17, and I was born on Dec. 11. His dad, my mother and her siblings also knew each other their whole lives,” Williams said. “My mother and her late twin sister went to Morris Brown College, and Horace went to [what was then known as] Clark College. Horace and I were in the band together. He finished high school a year before me, in 1975, at age 16. I finished a year later in 1976. I followed Horace to Oxford College, then to ‘big’ Emory [University].”
In addition to growing up together, the two notable leaders shared a common mission.
“Horace and I talked quite often about our community and the need to give back through service leadership,” Williams said. “When reflecting on how important friendship is, he said that the value of true friendship grows as the years go by.”
Johnson’s mother, Lottie B. Johnson, is 92 years old and still resides in Covington. Bryant-Johnson considers her mother-in-law a legend in her own right. “When people asked her, ‘You’re Horace’s mom?’ she would reply, ‘No. Horace is my son,’” she said. Johnson’s mother graduated from Tuskegee University and became a home economist. He credited his parents for teaching him the value of parental involvement in a child’s education. In a 2019 interview with The Daily Report, Johnson said his mother was, “a tiger mom before the phrase existed” and did not hesitate to intervene if something threatened his academic progress.
Johnson’s legacy will continue to bless others in the decades to come. Oxford College established an endowment for need-based scholarships in his name, and the NCAA created the Judge Horace J. Johnson Young Artists grant. The University of Georgia’s School of Law established the Judge Horace J. Johnson, Jr. Lecture on Race, Law and Policy. This memorial lecture series provides the UGA community with lectures from thought leaders at the intersection of these concepts.
Bryant-Johnson reiterated that she, her sons and the extended family are grateful for the outpouring of support they received from Covington leaders and residents in the two years since her husband died. They are also appreciative of all the ways the community has chosen to honor and remember him.
“It’s a devastating loss, but we are grateful for the time and kindness we’ve been shown,” Bryant-Johnson said. “Horace died doing what he loved. I like to say he was a lawyer’s lawyer, a friend’s friend and a brother’s brother. Everybody felt like they were his best friend. Even people he disagreed with called him friend. He was passionate about his work and the things he believed in. We certainly love and miss him, but we’ve turned the corner on our depression. Now, his memory brings joy and peace.”