Frank Johnson, wearing a dark sweater and a mask on his chin, stands behind a podium and speaks into a microphone.
In the nearly two years since the pandemic began, Frank Johnson says he has lost family and friends to the coronavirus. But he’s also started new work as a “community connector.”  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

When MLK50 published Frank Johnson’s essay in April 2020, he described himself as a teacher and activist — someone who loved his Alcy Ball community enough to quit a full-time teaching job two years earlier to pursue his mission to rebuild the place where he grew up and still lives. For employment, he began working as a substitute teacher through an agency while he and other residents planned a new community development corporation. The goal was to bring back to life the once-thriving Black neighborhood that had been devastated by systemically racist economic policies, including redlining, he said.

Frank Johnson

Age: 44

Neighborhood: Alcy Ball community in South Memphis

Occupation: Former full-time and substitute teacher; community activist; neighborhood connector for South Memphis at the Center for Transforming Communities since October 2020

The pandemic changed everything. COVID not only “blocked” his plans to help his community, but took a toll on his livelihood, he said. The schools shut down and Johnson found himself without employment, health insurance or any way to pay his bills.

One of Johnson’s biggest fears was to get sick without health insurance. He qualified for insurance under the Affordable Care Act but found, ironically, that he couldn’t afford the premiums that would have run well over $500 a month.

One thing the pandemic has taught him: Potential peril is never far away.

A year and a half later

“I’m in a better position,” Johnson said recently, while waiting to go into rehearsal for a musical cabaret at Playhouse on the Square — a way to get back to his love of singing.

He received five months of unemployment payments before landing a job at the Center for Transforming Communities, an organization that describes itself as a “faith-inspired community development corporation.” Johnson works as a “community connector,” helping neighborhood leaders and organizations to improve their communities. 

“And I do have [health] insurance with this position, thank God,” he said.

So, much is good, but not all, said Johnson. “My mental state is being taxed because I have seen so much death in the last year, but I’m doing better now.”

Johnson managed to dodge the scourge of COVID himself and has been vaccinated. But the virus still hit home. “I have lost three family members and five friends in total.” One was a friend from college who was younger than him.

Even so, he understands people who hesitate to get vaccinated — especially those in his community, he said.

“This country has such a history of lying about everything,” Johnson said. “There always seems to be a level of disrespect. Our concerns aren’t taken seriously. This country needs to be honest about what has been done to Black and brown folks over the decades.”

Is Johnson ready for things to get back to normal? Absolutely not. “‘Normal’ is what got us here,” he said emphatically.

Things also are looking better in Johnson’s neighborhood, where he heads the Alcy Ball Community Association. He said he hopes a fledgling CDC he helped organize, called Depot Communities United, will bring together several neighborhoods, including Alcy Ball, affected by the Memphis Defense Depot Superfund site where toxic waste was disposed. He is hopeful about several projects underway, including a community farm.

“It’s making us realize how we always survived,” he said. “We have always survived and thrived with each other.”

Celeste Williams is a writer and playwright living in Indianapolis. She was a journalist for more than 25 years, having worked at daily newspapers in Alabama, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Indiana. She has won national awards, including recognition for reporting on extreme poverty in Tunica, Mississippi. Her play, “More Light: Douglass Returns,” about abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass, was produced in 2017 and 2018 in Indiana.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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