Dr. Thomas Johnson: Black medical pioneer was also a supper club owner

Dr. Thomas Johnson
Dr. Thomas Johnson

It is impossible to mention medicine and health care from an African American perspective here in Minnesota without mentioning Dr. Thomas Johnson. He had established clinics starting in South Minneapolis in 1957. He stayed there until 1966, and because 80 percent of his clientele came from North Minneapolis, he moved to the corner of Plymouth and Queen Avenues North in 1966. He maintained that location until 1988.

Born in 1918, Thomas Johnson had a great educational upbringing, starting with very early graduation from high school in 1933 at the age of 15. Born in Texas, he began his post-secondary education at Wiley College, located in Marshall, Texas, and graduated at the age of 19.

In order to make it through college, he farmed, harvesting and doing other task in states located nearby, always working his way back to Texas. He wound up in Minnesota in the late 1930s and decided to make Minneapolis his home.

Coming here with a one-way ticket to St. Paul, he then walked from St. Paul to North Minneapolis. In 1942 Johnson returned to Texas to visit his mother and father for the last time before being drafted into the Army and sent to Monrovia, Liberia. This was a very important strategically located position for Western countries during World War II, as Europe was heavily Nazi controlled. He spent seven years in Liberia, while in the Army and four additional years there on his own accord, from 1945 to 1949. Soon after that time he chose to return to Minneapolis, where he met his wife, Henrietta Johnson, in 1950.

Cecil Newman, the founder of the Minneapolis Spokesman and St. Paul Recorder newspapers, helped Thomas Johnson and Alexander Abrahms, who passed away in 1987, apply for and attend the University of Minnesota pre-med school. They were eligible, as African American military doctors, for this placement. During school, Johnson worked construction and was part of the crews that constructed the St, Anthony Dam and the Franklin Avenue Bridge.

Abrahms was asked by some St. Paul residents to come and open a practice there, which he did upon graduation, and Johnson went on to apply for and receive the position of doctor at the Stillwater State Prison, becoming the first Black physician there in 1955. He did not at all expect to be considered for this job, and when he was offered it he had to return to Minneapolis to get his bags and start work.

He later moved his family to Stillwater. He had six children, three boys and three girls, two of the six children remain in Minneapolis. Thomas Jr. currently stays in Irving, Texas, while one daughter started the Beth Ann Construction Clean-Up business here in Minneapolis, and later went into the assisted living business, assisting her mother and father in their later years.

Dr. Thomas Johnson’s legacy goes beyond just medicine in that he was also very active in civil rights and equal opportunity activism for people of color. He was very instrumental in getting Spokesman-Recorder founder Cecil Newman admitted to the Minnesota Athletic Club as its first Black member. He went on to lead other picket-line protests against racial discrimination usually joined at the front by other Black construction worker associates.

Black employees at the Athletic Club were good enough to train White people to work on the club’s seventh floor, while Blacks were not allowed to work on the prestigious seventh floor. Protests stopped that discrimination.

In speaking with Thomas Johnson Jr., he said, “Anything associated with the name Johnson in Minnesota probably is associated with my father, Dr. Johnson. I left Minnesota in 2010 and decided to stay in Irving, Texas where I will probably remain.

“The Minnesota landscape is beautiful. The city, the lakes, there is nothing like it. White people were not as dogmatic then, as they have become now with the ending of the 21st century. It is sad that it takes moving out of Minnesota to get a good look at Minnesota.

“My father had great success through the help of other Black Minnesota men, like Tommy Lewis, Richard Estes, Stanley King, Frank Alsop and Jimmy Fuller, to name a few. He worked hard with Mr. Jimmy Fuller to acquire the land that had a great view of the Minneapolis skyline, and although it was a toxic dump site, he cleaned it up and opened the Riverview Supper Club.”

The earliest Black physician known to practice in Minnesota is Dr. William Brown, Sr. who began practice in 1901. “My father worked with Dr. Brown and Dr. Abrahms, when Black patients were being syphoned from them through HMO schemes and they were told they could start their own HMO. They needed one hospital to back them in a short allotted time frame, in which they received the backing of three hospitals, only to be set upon by those [HMO] factions that did not want to see them become very successful. Together they had 26,000 patients which would have equated to an annual operation of twenty six million dollars.”

The information shared with our readers was given in a MSR interview with Thomas Johnson, Jr.

Raymond Jackson welcomes reader responses to rayjack49@yahoo.com.

One Comment on “Dr. Thomas Johnson: Black medical pioneer was also a supper club owner”

  1. Whoa!!!!! All I can say is I hope the writer takes better notes with next relative than he did with me, because although much of what he said is true, so much of it is distorted and thus untrue, that it makes it difficult for me to enjoy. It’s like the writer just got happy and started inventing a false narrative simply because it sounded good. I would caution against that because the old school black Minnesotans were a small tight enough community that we knew everybody, just about, and thus they know what was true and what was not. However, it still sounds good, and I am appreciative of the writer taking the time in his attempt to honor my father. Regards, Thomas H. Johnson, III

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