Newtown Florist Club
Location: 1064 DeSota St., Gainesville
Decades of dedication and hard work have prepared Rose Johnson for this one role. And she’s had some big shoes to fill — Faye Bush’s shoes to be exact.
She saw the changes the members of this particular group were making in the community and wanted to be a part of it.
And for the past year, Johnson has been the executive director of the Newtown Florist Club, an environmental and civil rights organization founded in 1950. Since then, she’s been helping the club reach its goals however she can. And her journey to this position started when she was 12 years old.
Beginning of an activist group
The Newtown Florist Club has come a long way since its inception and its members have made lasting changes to the Gainesville and Hall County community.
Bush’s mother, Maggie Johnson, was one of the 11 women who founded the club. It started as a group of women who went door-to-door collecting donations for flowers in their community. The money was spent on flower arrangements for the community funerals, which the women noticed were rising in unprecedented numbers.
“It was a scary time back then. I ran a little store and there were slum houses nearby without toilets,” Bush said in a previous interview with The Times in 2010. “When we started to take a stand, people started calling me and threatening me. It hasn’t been a pleasant ride for those 60 years.”
Club members later discovered the Newtown community had disproportionately high rates of lupus and cancer. Concerns were neighboring industries were causing the illness, so the organization launched into environmental activism.
“We didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning with the environment, but we knew grain dust came out and covered the kids, and you couldn’t sit on your porch,” Bush has said.
In 1978, the club asked the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the nearby Purina plant’s sewage odors and grain dusting problem.
With those steps of activism, the Newtown Florist Club started to build a reputation and had an impact on its community, including Johnson herself.
Her role models
As a girl, Johnson attended her first public hearing with some of the older club members. Women in the club, like Bush and the late Ruby Wilkins, inspired her to join.
“They saw the issues that needed to be addressed,” Johnson said.
She saw the women work together on issues such as poor housing conditions, providing recreational activities for the children in the area and campaigning for school desegregation.
“That kind of caring drew me to the club,” Johnson said.
As a youth, Johnson was tasked with organizing other youth in the program, including a girls’ group, a pageant for girls and a basketball and softball team.
“We believe in the village that raises the child. But we take care of more than the elderly and children,” Johnson said.
Leading the nonprofit
As she reached adulthood, her participation transitioned from club member to board member. Then in December 2014, Johnson earned the spot as executive director. She took over for Bush, who ran the club since 1990.
Bush, who couldn’t be reached for comment, said in January 2015 she was excited about Johnson being the new director.
“She knows how to reach people and how to get grants and all that,” she has said. “She has a lot of knowledge on things to do and how to do it, and she speaks out on it.”
Her knowledge and experience helps her coordinate programs for youth in the community, but the focus is mostly on middle school girls. The girls leadership program was established in 1994 to help girls ages 11-17 develop leadership skills. It is also designed to create opportunities for low-income girls to grow in a healthy environment.
The Newtown Florist Club, however, does not forget about the past. Johnson said the club is concerned with preserving and documenting history as part of its mission. They have decades’ worth of documents and other historical artifacts.
As executive director, Johnson also coordinates programs in the community. Recently, the club put together a walk for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. And she recruited a Gainesville native to help.
Andre Cheek gladly lent her services for the task of putting the march together when Bush reached out. She helped with applications for the march route and acted as a liaison between the club and speakers, schools and other organizations.
“As the relationship grew, they tasked me with more voluntary roles,” said Cheek, who works with the Department of Juvenile Justice as an outreach unit program coordinator.
Johnson and the Newtown Florist Club also asked Cheek to help with the group’s banquet.
“They allowed me the opportunity for me to interact with the club,” Cheek said. “They gave me the opportunity to be involved with something so big in the community.”
As the new year starts, Johnson said the club will pay attention to criminal justice issues, specifically the issue of mass incarceration. Plus, one of their newer focuses will be connecting with Southern environmental groups and disaster recovery, she said.
She believes the club’s 50 to 60 active members, who convene for monthly meetings, are up for the new tasks. But the club is always seeking new recruits.
“Anybody can join if they believe in the mission,” Johnson said. However, she will never forget those who came before her.
“What I must do is honor the legacy of the women who invested a lot of time, energy and wisdom into me along the way,” Johnson said.