J.O. Johnson’s family supports memorializing him at old school site

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT)--  James Oliver Johnson is remembered by his family as a man who loved Huntsville.

"He was the one who believed you give back to the community that raises you," said Jim Johnson, J.O. Johnson's son.

But Jim says his family is still hurting over the Huntsville City School Board of Education decision years ago to name a new school "Jemison High School," as it replaces the "JO Johnson High School" that has been named after his father for decades.

"We felt like we had been, I guess, left out of the equation," he explained. "We mean no disrespect to Ms. Jemison or Mr. McNair. They served their country. I think our point is, [Johnson] served our community."

He said his family would still like to see the new Jemison High named after J.O. Johnson.

"We would like for the new high school to carry his name," he said.

WHNT News 19 spoke with school leaders who say that's not going to be happening. There's a ribbon cutting set for August 2 to celebrate Jemison High, and board member Laurie McCaulley said it would take a superintendent recommendation and board approval to change its name per school policy.

"I understand their feelings toward wanting to memorialize their family member's legacy," she said in a statement to WHNT News 19.

But the Johnsons are still fighting for what they want, and say if they can't have the active school named after him they would be willing to see him remembered at the building originally built in his name. Jim Johnson and other J.O. Johnson relatives held a meeting with Huntsville city leaders Tuesday. There, they explained the need to have J.O. Johnson honored, and heard plans to redevelop the old building.

"If the name couldn't follow the school, I think it would be the next best thing for us," commented Tommy Johnson, J.O. Johnson's nephew.

"We very much appreciate the fact that Mayor Battle has continued to stay in touch with us, the fact that staff are being proactive in trying to find some beneficial use for the existing site, and that we were able to have a dialogue with them," said Jim Johnson. "We appreciate what they're doing to keep his name in front of the public in a positive way."

Urban Planner Dennis Madsen told WHNT News 19 his team is looking forward to taking all opinions into account when deciding what to do with the old building. He said several options are on the table, and need to be vetted internally to determine what's possible for the site. He notes, they will do their best to honor James Oliver Johnson there, in some way, adding that there are many creative ways to make it happen.

"The ship has sailed," commented Jim Johnson about the renaming of the school, "but they're still at sea."

Tommy Johnson said his uncle, James Oliver Johnson, was also nicknamed "Pick" by those who knew him. He taught history and coached basketball at West Huntsville High School, and married fellow Athens College graduate Ruth Hartford. They lived in and loved their community. Johnson also joined and excelled in the US Armed Forces including the Army and the Alabama National Guard. He was even deployed overseas as part of the 837th Aviation Engineer Battalion.