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Civil rights activist Horace Johnson recognized with Hillsborough exhibit

“The Klan came to kill me — I’ll never forget that,” Johnson said.

His immediate response was to grab all the signs and put them up on his back porch. Johnson then took to the streets to join in.

He said nerves welled up inside, knowing the cost of each step could be his life. He said he prayed the Lord would give him just another hour to march in peace.

The protest — held in 1968 — was not the last time Johnson risked his life. He wore a bulletproof vest his first year in office in 1989. In 1995, a landowner frustrated about land negotiations came into his office intending to murder him. The landowner saw that Johnson used a walking stick, and assuming he was disabled, decided not to kill him.

Johnson has continued to protest for equal rights for segregated businesses and schools in Hillsborough throughout his life.

“I hadn’t planned to get into civil rights, I was predestined to do what I did,” he said.

Hillsborough and Carrboro celebrated Horace Johnson Day on Feb. 4 to honor his role as a community activist and Free Spirit Freedom, a cultural arts nonprofit, held a tribute to him.

“We try to highlight these unsung heros of Orange County,” said Renee Price, an Orange County Commissioner and co-founder of Free Spirit Freedom.

The event featured a short video and guest speakers that described Johnson’s role as an activist and mentor.

“Back in the 60’s there was no rec department for black kids to play,” said Ken Chavious, who was mentored by Johnson. “He put up a basketball court in his backyard and there was always a ball out there whether he was at home or not.”

Chavious said Johnson taught children about the importance of education and respecting themselves.

Johnson played a major role in Hillsborough’s school system. He was the first to enroll his children in an all-white elementary school at the time, Cameron Park Elementary.

“His courage to speak up challenged the establishment for changes in the black community,” Rosetta Moore, a speaker at the tribute event, said. “Young people need a role model that can bring around change.”

An exhibit for Johnson currently stands in the Orange County Historical Museum. Johnson said he has so many plaques for his work he can hardly fit them on a table.

“A lot of times, black citizens in Hillsborough are not recognized for the things they’ve done,” said Thomas Watson, co-founder of Free Spirit Freedom.

Free Spirit Freedom began because Price and Watson wanted to use photography and speakers to honor people of color. They proposed the project to the Hillsborough Arts Council, which agreed to partner with them.

Currently they hold events in local churches and community centers, but in the long-term Price said she wants to be a separate resource from the Art Council.

“Basically, we need a home,” Price said. “We have to have a space to put up our photographs and have events when we want them.”

Free Spirit Freedom has held events in the past to display photos of segregation in Hillsborough.

Johnson said the black community was expected to keep their heads down in the face of white neighbors and not look them in the eye.

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“The ball was in my court, so I played it and had the courage to do it,” Johnson said.