As the NMSU campus celebrates Black History Month, the Open Stacks is highlighting the achievements of black students, faculty, and staff, as well as community members who have made important contributions throughout New Mexico and the Borderlands.
One noteworthy New Mexican is former Las Cruces Mayor Albert Norris Johnson. Johnson was 49 years old when he passed away, with little warning, from Leukemia. One of the last public events he attended, a month before his passing, was the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the George McDonald Ranch House at the Trinity Historic Site. Johnson was instrumental in the preservation and restoration of the ranch house.
Johnson was born in Nashville, Tennessee; he attended the historic Pearl High School in Nashville. For half a century, Pearl was the only black high school in the city. Every day, 1,500 students made their way to school, some after walking several miles across town to get there, or some like Johnson making the 31-mile drive from his hometown in Lebanon. Johnson was already an adult and living in New Mexico by the time his alma mater became desegregated and hired their first white teacher in 1969. Later in 1972, the school admitted both black and white students. Perhaps his exposure to the largest and most popular all-black student schools gave him the edge he needed to succeed in politics. Johnson became the first black person elected in a government position in the state of New Mexico when voters placed him on the Las Cruces City Commission in 1968. From that day forward, he worked to improve the quality of life around the community.
After receiving his civil engineering degree at Tennessee State University in 1958, Johnson began his employment at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) as an environmental engineer. At the time of his death, he had been the chief of Environmental and Natural Resources Division at WSMR for ten years and was employed for 27 years. After his death, the Public Affairs Office at WSMR began collecting donations for trees, shrubs, sod, and plants to be placed in a park dedicated to Albert Johnson. Soldiers, city leaders, and community members came together to build the park in honor of Johnson. The park and a statue of Johnson remain today as a peaceful place on a chaotic intersection of Las Cruces. The corner is near the Third Judicial District Courthouse, police department, and fire department, and right in the center of all the chaos is Branigan Library. The park sits next to the street and across the parking lot from the library. The statue of Johnson is peaceful with his hands clasped together in a relaxed stance.
It is no surprise that the small park was the gathering for peaceful demonstrations in June of 2020 for a vigil to honor George Floyd. Later that same week, district court public defenders led local protest marches and demonstrations across New Mexico to coordinate with public defenders nationwide to protest systemic racism in policing and criminal justice. Johnson would have approved.
Johnson and his wife, Elmira, participated in many events and supported programs for the black community. In 1974, Elmira performed a musical number at the Martin Luther King memorial service at WSMR. Albert and his cousin Alfred Rucks were both on the planning committee for the anniversary memorial program. Elmira and Albert Johnson passed along civic and cultural values to their three sons Albert Jr, Kerry, and Pierre. Not only was Albert Johnson the first black Mayor of Las Cruces, but he is also the only black person to have served in that position to date.
At a ceremony to install Johnson’s official portrait in City Hall, his cousin, Alfred Rucks, described Johnson as a fully devoted man to making Las Cruces a better place to live and one with a tremendous devotion to his family, his church, and to his community. Below are a few of the many civic responsibilities and appointments that Johnson served:
- 1966-1967 Elected chairman, Dona Ana County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP);
- 1967-1968 Elected president, New Mexico NAACP;
- 1968-1976 Elected to Las Cruces City Council, resigns as president of state NAACP due to conflicts of interest policy; made history as the first black person to hold a city government office;
- 1969 Governor David Cargo appoints Johnson to replace Rev. J.H. Horton on the New Mexico Fair Employment Practices Commission;
- 1973-1976 Governor Bruce King appointed Johnson to the Human Rights Commission;
- 1976 Governor Jerry Apodaca appointed Johnson to the Governor’s Council of Criminal Justice Planning. The 15-member regional commission was responsible for reviewing and recommending projects for possible funding by the Governor’s Council, which distributed federal funds from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). High priority was set to reduce crime in New Mexico. Johnson and the other commission members brought forward the concern of citizens on how to spend the 2.3 million dollars for crime reduction;
- 1976-1980 Elected to and serves two terms as mayor of the City of Las Cruces;
- 1981 Governor Bruce King appointed Johnson to the State Judicial Standards Commission for a five-year term. The commission was responsible for the discipline, removal, or retirement of judges in New Mexico. Johnson replaced Dr. John Hernandez;
- 1982 Chairman of the Junteenth Celebration, annually sponsored by the Dona Ana NAACP;
- 1985 Campaign by the Public Affairs Office at WSMR to raise funds for a park in Las Cruces named for Johnson;
- 1989 Johnson was inducted into the Democratic Party of New Mexico’s Hall of Fame;
- 2004 Inducted into the Alice K. Hoppes African American Pavilion Expo New Mexico Hall of Fame.
There is no telling what the future could have held for Albert Johnson had he lived longer. The impact he left on the Las Cruces community member’s hearts reminds us to be dedicated, play fair, and treat all with humanity and respect.