West Volusia will forever be enhanced due to the vision and life of Irene Johnson and her legacy, and that of her late husband, the Rev. Maxwell Johnson. Their work to establish the African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand will never be forgotten.
Although born in Sanford, Florida, Johnson moved to Washington, D.C., after high-school graduation to attend Howard University. It was there that she would meet her life partner and husband, Maxwell Johnson.
After decades serving in ministry and education, the Johnsons moved to West Volusia and continued their service by establishing the AAMA in 1994 to showcase and further explore the richness of African American culture. Through monthly exhibits and speakers, the museum would provide families the opportunity to share with their children generations of strength, inventions, culture and the arts. Outdoor events were added when the Dr. Noble “Thin Man” Watts Amphitheater opened across the street in 2004.
From summer youth programs to annual events celebrating Kwanzaa, the museum has become a staple in the community. Over the years, the museum has promoted African and Caribbean American art in a variety of ways.
Johnson taught many of us the importance of embracing our history and providing a safe space to learn more in order to be more.
“Irene Johnson inspired me to initiate a personal goal/focus for teaching and inspiring the youth of our church and community to seek to learn and celebrate the ‘History in Our Hood,’” said community advocate Brenda Cusack.
Johnson will be remembered for her unwavering support of the DeLand community, as a member of the DeLand Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and her time spent as a devoted member of Greater Union First Baptist Church.
She was honored by such organizations as the West Volusia National Council of Negro Women and the Electralyte Charity Club, and received many awards, including the Distinguished Woman Award for Notable Community Service and the Cheryl Poole Whitted Sister’s Award.
Johnson received recognition and honor from the Stetson University board of trustees as a strategic community partner, colleague, and friend in the transformation of Stetson University and the community.
Irene helped enlighten me about the difference between being prideful and being proud. Despite her many achievements, she was not a prideful woman. But Irene stood up for her beliefs, and her dreams for the museum surely came to pass. “And I know she is indeed proud of that,” shared Brenda Williams, one of Irene’s longtime friends.
Johnson led a fulfilled life, April 20, 1929-April 18, 2021, and left a life-enhancing impression on so many people she came in contact with over the years. And although she moved from West Volusia in 2014, her love of this community remained, and so did her many interests. She loved writing poetry, short stories and community history; also, traveling, working in the church, and giving piano lessons to young people.
A woman of God, consistent in her efforts and a trailblazer creating paths for the future, Johnson will be missed, but not forgotten.
Her services can be viewed via livestream at 10:30 a.m. Friday, May 14, on www.vaughncgreene.com.