Looking Back at Black History in Everett Lee G. Johnson: ‘The Judge From Cherry Street’

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a month-long series about noteworthy black Americans in Everett, taken from vignettes written by former City Clerk Michael Matarazzo in his book ‘They Came from Everett.’ The histories of many black residents of Everett might surprise readers, as many of their stories have never been fully told. There are judges, former slaves who become hotel operators, football players and a former ambassador. It is hoped our readers enjoy these pieces as much as we did. Matarazzo’s book is available at bookblues.com.

Lee G. Johnson grew up in what would eventually become a single-parent household in the Cherry Street projects. With very little to call their own, Lee’s mother Geraldine would remind him and his brother George to be grateful for what they had and to use it to the best of their ability.

Lee took his mother’s advice to heart. While she worked at various jobs to support the family including at the state Commission on Indian Affairs, Lee and his brother would play sports and all the other games that the project kids enjoyed. At Everett High School, Lee was a good student but truly excelled on the basketball court. Lee was named All-Scholastic, All-State and All-New England for his exploits on the court but he knew that his future was not in the NBA but elsewhere. He attended a junior college before attending UMass. At UMass, the coaching staff was hoping to convince Lee to play hoops for the Minutemen. He gave them a courtesy tryout but after a one-on-one drill with a teammate by the name of Julius “Dr. J” Irving, Lee came to the realization that the difference between high school phenom and college star was too great and he just didn’t have the desire to work that hard at a game.

Lee wasn’t going to do anything halfway.

After graduation from UMass with a degree in Sociology, Lee worked as a caseworker at the Charles Street Jail in Boston, before becoming deputy director of human services, and eventually director. Lee also taught history and civics for a year at the Parlin School when it was a junior high school. While he was attending the New England School of Law, he worked as a Middlesex County Superior Court probation officer. After passing the bar exam, Lee went into private practice in Everett and Medford.

In 1998, Lee announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for the office of Middlesex County District Attorney. Lee would be unopposed in the Republican Primary, but would lose the general election to the Democrat Martha Coakley. Lee was the first African-American to ever seek the office of Middlesex County District Attorney.

Lee returned to private practice until the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court removed the Middlesex County Registrar of Probate for a litany of violations of the public trust. Appointing a new Registrar to serve until the next election fell on Governor Paul Cellucci. When the name Lee G. Johnson was suggested to the Governor, he didn’t hesitate and Lee G. Johnson became Registrar of Probate in August of 1999.

Lee was now the first African-American to hold a county-wide office in Middlesex County. Lee immediately went to work trying to drag the Registry into the 20th Century by computerizing the office. The computers that he had installed in the office were the first ever utilized there. As a Republican, Lee hoped that he could win the position in the next election, but he was certainly realistic about his chances in an overwhelmingly Democrat county.

In typical Lee style, however, he worked hard to improve the office, provide better services, and to create a positive work environment. Lee had a job to do and he was going to do it to the best of his ability regardless of the circumstances. As expected, Lee lost the election and Governor Cellucci appointed him to the Civil Service Commission.

In April 2001, Paul Cellucci resigned, after President George W. Bush nominated, and the U.S. Senate confirmed, his appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Canada. Governor Cellucci was succeeded by Lt. Governor Jane Swift, who became the first woman in Massachusetts history to occupy the governor’s office. In 2002, Governor Swift nominated and the Governor’s Council approved the appointment of Lee G. Johnson as First Justice of the Malden District Court. He was the first African American to serve in that position at the court and he would serve in that capacity for the longest duration in the history of the Malden District Court. 

There is no way to adequately describe Judge Johnson’s influence on the Malden District Court and the communities that it served. He was man who not only earned the respect of those with whom he worked but won their love and admiration as well. His compassion for those less fortunate, and who found themselves in trouble, led him to seek solutions beyond incarceration, while still using his sentencing powers if he thought it best for the community and/or the defendant.

Judge Johnson was ahead of the curve with his strong commitment to preventing domestic violence, ensuring school safety and his desire to seek effective approaches to drug addiction is nothing short of legendary. For more than 10 years, Judge Johnson was instrumental in the successful implementation of the drug court session that empowered many defendants to lead productive, drug-free lives. If you wanted it, he was there to help. If you didn’t, then he was there to protect the people that he served.

The Judge always found time for student groups and young people interested in the law. He felt a responsibility to encourage kids to reach for the stars. It was never about him, but the greater good.

His warmth, intelligence, dedication, compassion and discernment are only outweighed by his humility. The glowing tributes flowered upon him after his death were no different than those expressed when he was alive. Judge Lee G. Johnson died after a courageous battle with stomach cancer. His family lost a treasured brother and uncle. The community lost a dedicated public servant. To those once addicted to drugs, and now living sober lives, they lost their advocate. For many, many others his death meant the loss of dear friend.

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