by Tim Gilmore, 3/7/2015
In 1959, the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Councils forced Dinsmore Dairy, the most prominent dairy in Florida, out of its retail business, because its owners, Earl and Nell Johnson, were prominent white supporters of civil rights in Jacksonville. Dinsmore continued its wholesale on-site business until the mid-1980s, but it never regained the market dominance its retail operations had secured in its glory years.
More than half a century later, the memory still boils their son’s blood, as it’s influenced his politics and social stances all his life. Andy Johnson, former Florida Congressman and long-time radio show host, meets me in front of a
coffeeshop in San Marco and tells me how his family’s dairy went from having the largest herd of Guernsey cattle in the world to being boycotted and having the Klan burn a cross on one of its pastures.
A thin man sitting nearby keeps waving his hands in the air and saying, “Thank you, Jenny. Thank you, God. Thank you, Jenny. Thank you, God.” For a while he’d been quiet, smoking a cigarette contemplatively and occasionally turning it around to tap the ashes into his mouth.
Andy’s father, Earl A. Johnson, frequently received phone calls aimed at Earl M. Johnson, the black city councilman and civil rights attorney who filed for desegregation of Duval County public schools, with whom Earl A. was friends.
When they confused him for Earl M., they’d call Earl A. a “nigger,” and when they had the right Earl on the line, they’d call him a “nigger lover.”
Andy’s grandfather, V.C. Johnson, who would become a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., began the family dairy after a doctor said the health of his brother and sister could benefit by moving from the Northeast to a warmer climate.
So in 1910, he bought 13 cows for $450. As the business grew, he kept buying parcels of 10 acres, some of the land not at first connected. He kept buying until it was all of a piece and the dairy consisted of 2,000 Guernsey cows on 2,000 acres.
Today the land is broken up into new subdivisions and a couple of large plots where old moss-bearded pecan trees and the stone foundation rings of silos remain. The milk processing plant, whose base structure dates to 1919, has been remodeled into a home, and the 200 foot-long cow barn, a horse barn, and various outbuildings populate the surrounding fields.
Just down Dunn Avenue, halfway before the I-295 beltway, a giant bull with glowing red eyes stands alone in a field. “Demon bull,” says my daughter Veda, dismissively.
By 1920, “Johnson’s baby milk” was advertised as the cleanest milk for infants, with the lowest bacteria count.
“At first,” Andy says, “it was ladled out of a milk can, then later it was bottles and later milk in cartons. Then finally, with the polka dot rage in the 1950s, we had Dinsmore Dairy polka dot cartons and Dinsmore Dairy polka dot hats and polka dot ties.”
In the ’50s, the dairy advertised on billboards across the city, took out daily ads in The Jacksonville Journal and The Florida Times-Union, and sponsored the local broadcast of the TV sitcom My Little Margie.
Though V.C. Johnson worked hard to build the family dairy, he always felt guilty about having money. When Andy was young, his grandfather took him downtown to Quaker meetings held at the YWCA every Sunday, after which they’d visit churches of different faiths—Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian.
Every Sunday for a year, they read a chapter from the journal of John Woolman. “Woolman,” Andy jokes, “was a Quaker, and he was enormously wealthy, and he felt very guilty about it, not guilty enough to give away his money, but guilty enough to write a book telling everybody else that they should give away their money.”
This is the liberal and ecumenical background that lent itself to Andy’s parents working with civil rights organizations like the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Andy comes from pacifists and conscientious objectors. V.C. Johnson organized a counter-boycott against the United Way, then known as the Community Chest, when it threatened to pull its funding from the Urban League, and his father worked tirelessly to help save Brewster Hospital, the only hospital that would admit black patients, from bankruptcy.
Both V.C. and Earl Johnson received repeated death threats over the years, which they disregarded as cowardly stupidity. “They never had a weapon raised at them,” Andy says.
“My father was very good with a rifle, and he would shoot something messing with a crop, but other than that, he believed in protecting wildlife, and the idea of using a gun for self-defense was actually loathsome to my family.”
In the strange white world of the 1950s’ South, Earl Johnson knew people who were members of the Klan but said they supported the Johnson family and Dinsmore Dairy.
Says Andy, “I remember conversations like, ‘Earl, look, we love you, we love your family, we don’t wanna hurt the dairy, but can’t you guys just calm down and quit helping all these niggers? Being a nigger-lover is just asking for trouble. Something’s gonna happen. I can’t tell you what, but something’s gonna happen.’”
As a matter of fact, a great big something was imminent, and Earl and Nell knew it. Andy remembers being “there at the kitchen table,” when his parents, his grandfather, and a farm employee held terrifying discussions about how the Klan might follow through on saying they’d “get the attention of, or make an object of, the Johnson family.” Andy was about six years old, but his parents didn’t shield him and these conversations made foundational impressions.
“And at least this one time, 1958 or ’59,” Andy says, “Dad himself went to a meeting. It was maybe a week later that my mother was yelling at him about it, that his doing this thing was too scary for her.”
Andy’s father had infiltrated a Klan meeting to find out what was going on, what they were planning. He heard them say they were going to do something to the Johnsons, but he still couldn’t tell what.
The Klan burnt a cross on a Dinsmore Dairy pasture, and then there was the boycott.
White Citizens’ Councils, which spawned overnight across the South when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools desegregate, backed by the Ku Klux Klan, sponsored door-to-door emissaries, often in the guise of competing dairies, who asked decent white housewives to consider another dairy, though their families had taken quarts of milk in glass bottles each day from Dinsmore for decades, mentioning, by the way—“Did you know?”—that V.C. Johnson had donated such-and-such funds to the NAACP.
White Citizens’ Council delegates appealed to “good Christian” (and Southern racist) charity by saying they weren’t bigots, that they too loved black people, but they stood against intermarriage and crime.
“There was so much of that kind of talk,” Andy says, “‘We want equal rights for black people, God loves everybody, but we’re against crime and intermarriage and need to take a stand for the purity of the white race and the white wallet.’”
His parents and grandparents believed deeply in the Bible, but would consider a unanimous and absolute literal interpretation of the Bible to be as foolish as a complete dismissal.
When Andy was a child, he was stunned to learn that a preacher always officiated at Klan meetings. He remembers talking to his father about that meeting he’d attended.
“I didn’t understand. I said, ‘Dad, you mean they had a preacher?’
“‘Oh, oh they always have a preacher.’
“‘But a preacher can’t be against black people.’
“He said, ‘But there’s a lot of preachers that are against black people.’”
The preacher Earl A. Johnson saw at that late 1950s’ Klan meeting was Bob Gray, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church. Gray was in his early 30s. The church would grow into the city’s first megachurch and, in the 1970s, one of the largest churches in the nation.
Gray regularly denounced the Civil Rights Movement from the pulpit and called Martin Luther King “Martin Lucifer King.”
In the late 1990s, both criminal and civil suits would reveal that Trinity Baptist Church had covered for Bob Gray’s molestations of children for 50 years.
Earl Johnson never forgot seeing Bob Gray offer his prayer for the KKK, and always considered Gray a part, however small, of the organized effort to ruin his family.
The old white house, once the milk processing building, was modeled after Mount Vernon. Its front porch is lined with tall columns, and a cupola once offered ventilation down into an air-shaft through the attic. The kitchen had been a bottle-washing room, with concrete floors that sloped down to central drains.
Out in and around the cow barn are the partly subterranean concrete structures that cleansed milking areas, removed waste to a retention pond, and irrigated and fertilized back pastures—the whole natural cycle from nutrition to waste to nutrition circuited ouroborically across the dairy.
Tornados have whipped oaks and camphors into strange twisted shapes through which these trees continued to grow for decades.
Historical forces often work much the same way through cities and societies and people.
Jacksonville’s white supremacists sought to make an example of Dinsmore Dairy, but they inadvertently created one of the city’s most outspoken progressive political activists. And Andy Johnson has never forgotten what they did to his family.
All these years later, he says, “They destroyed my daddy’s business.”