Velma Johnson Passes
Velma Johnson was all of these and more. When she walked into a room dressed her indelible style people knew they were meeting someone with creativity and imagination. Her presence emanated joy, beauty, and laughter. There was always something about her that excited, charmed and inspired everyone she met.
She began her extraordinary life journey on December 23rd 1929 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania- a small town outside Philadelphia where she lived until she was three years old. Yet, you could say that her life truly began when she moved to New York on 99th Street in Manhattan. That’s when she developed an interest in art. At the age of seven, she’d walk across Central Park by herself to visit The Museum of the City of New York. She was transfixed by the fashions, art and history she experienced there.
At Tilden High School, guidance counselors told Velma that being a nurse of dietician was the best she could do. They only saw a young black girl – they never saw the artist. So she enrolled part-time in Brooklyn College while she worked as a dietician in hospitals across the city. Velma knew she was capable of more.
Velma left the food services in the early 1950’s behind and went to work as a secretary on Wall Street for Western Union as one of the first black women secretaries. She developed many life-long friendships with other black women she met there.
In 1952, she met Leroy Johnson and they married in 1954. Lee was from Harlem and, as Velma told the story, there was “an aura of light around his head”. She knew he was “the one”. They danced and partied their way through the early years of the their marriage until their son Chris was born in Flushing, Queens. A daughter, Walis, came two years later. While raising her family, Velma finally got her bachelor’s degree in Art at Queens College. She worked part-time for the magazine 1001 Decorating Ideas and other publications of the time. A sixties-style aluminum foil mini dress was one of many fashion and decorating ideas shown on a local television show featuring her designs.
Always, ahead of their time, Velma and Lee moved to Brooklyn way before it was fashionable and “cool”. Listening to her laugh about those early days was delightful. Lee didn’t quite know what he was getting into – he just thought it was one of Velma’s wacky plans. But he went along, inspired by Velma’s passion for creating something from nothing. Pretty soon renovating the brownstone on St. James Place became a lifelong passion for the family.
Living in Clinton Hill ignited her involvement community activism. She loved Brooklyn! Within a year after moving into the house she singlehandedly saved the brownstone next door from the “urban renewal” wrecking ball by circulating a petition that won the house a reprieve. The beautiful block we have today is because of her courage to fight and speak to power. She served on the board of PACC – Pratt Area Community Council — organizing the very first PACC Clinton Hill House Tour and large community fairs and block parties. In the early 1970’s, she founded the Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus – a group that still performs today, and spearheaded the development of the Clinton Hill Society. She fought for services like the Clinton Hill library on Washington Avenue and neighborhood beautification projects like flowers and trees, the community garden on Dekalb Avenue, and, more recently, the little iron fences that surround the trees on St. James Place.
In 1972,Velma opened Studio 14A Boutique in the basement of her family’s brownstone. It began as a project to raise money for a new kitchen, but quickly turned into something more. She sold crafts and designs from Design Works of Bedford Stuyvesant — a favorite project of Jackie Onassis — and featured the work of local artists. Crafts later evolved into fashion as she started selling unique boutique-wear to fashion conscious Brooklyn women.
It was all about the clothes: the color, style and pattern and how it all came together on a woman’s body. When people stepped into Studio 14A, they came out transformed. She sold clothes that lasted. Even today women remember what they bought from the boutique and how much fun they had. Studio 14A thrived until Velma retired in 1997 after 25 years in business.
Retirement brought a whirlwind of travel, home renovations, parties, grandchildren and community recognition for all of her accomplishments and achievements. Velma received citations from the New York City Council, Fort Greene Association, St. James Block Association, Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus, Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Churches and Sororities. She was widely recognized as a black business icon – a woman of courage, style and stature — a mentor for black business people throughout the community.
Velma loved life and living well. She liked to celebrate — she was always the life of the party- any party, wherever it was. In 2003, at age 70, Velma was featured in Essence Magazine’s in its annual Ageless Beauty Edition. The picture shows her doing Tai Chi with grace and serenity.
She had the energy of 10 people in one! She had so much love, so much talent, so much energy and courage, so much style, so much LIFE! She is remembered as a fierce, independent spirit — a personality who spoke her mind and radiated light, warmth and wisdom.
Memories of Velma live in on in the hearts of her children, grandchildren, daughter-in-law, a worldwide community of acquaintances, customers and dear friends.
Velma did life her way and for that she is admired and forever missed.