Joining the Newtown Florist Club was never a choice for Rose Johnson. It was simply a way of life.
Johnson — who attended her first Newtown Florist Club meeting in the late 1960s at the age of 12 and has served as executive director of the club since 2014 — was born and raised in the Newtown community, where she grew up in a three-room shotgun house right around the corner from an open ditch that “smelled like raw sewage 24 hours a day.” Homelessness and unemployment were rampant in the primarily black community, and Johnson said members of the Ku Klux Klan would often ride through the streets of Newtown to terrorize the people living there.
When she began going to club meetings, school desegregation was one of the primary topics of interest. And while she was one of the younger members then, Johnson said her involvement in the club as a child was not such an unusual thing.
“It wasn’t just me getting involved,” she said. “It was just the way the community was. Everybody was involved. It was just the natural way of life for us.”
Johnson vividly remembers the regular meetings the club used to have in the living room of Ruby Wilkins, one of the club’s founding members.
While many neighborhood kids played basketball on the court outside of Wilkins’ home, Johnson was inside, developing a passion for social activism and for making her community a better place.
Newtown — and the meetings held by the Newtown Florist Club — have changed quite a bit since then, but Johnson’s passion has never faded.
“I’m committed to this vision of living in the kind of community where we can also say that we love our community and we will do everything that we can do to improve the quality of life for people who are oppressed and whose voices are seldom heard,” she said. “People who need a little bit of support to live a better life and to stand up for issues, social justice, civil rights issues that hit our community really hard.”
Delinda Luster, a Newtown Florist Club member who has known Johnson her entire life, said Johnson is the perfect voice to be leading the community during the recent unrest sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other black men and women around the country who have been died in incidents with the police.
Luster said Johnson has always had a calming presence about her, and when she speaks, people listen.
“She is truly a leader,” Luster said. “She knows what she’s doing, and she knows where we need to go. She knows the steps and how to get us from point A to point B.”
Luster said Johnson’s contributions to environmental justice have been perhaps her most impactful actions for the Newtown community. During her time with the club, Johnson has been known for taking people on “toxic tours,” guiding them around the area and showing them some of the environmental issues that plagued Newtown specifically.
“She would lead officials through the neighborhood explaining exactly what was going on and why we felt it was going on,” Luster said.
Johnson has also gone above and beyond to help the youth in the community.
When controversy erupted over the bullying of black students at Gainesville Middle School, Johnson organized a group of black mothers who got together to speak on the issue and try to find the best way to deal with it.
Ron Sheats, who has been with Newtown Florist Club for the last four years, said Johnson’s initiative to help out bullied students stood out to him as an example of her strong passion for giving a voice to the voiceless.
“I really was very proud of her, the way she took the handle on that and got these black young mothers just to stay still, be still and don’t react so violently. That really touched me the way she took ahold of that and formed that group for these ladies so they can have a platform to speak about bullying in school.”
Johnson said she also believes she and the Newtown Florist Club have helped make strides in improving issues from unemployment and homelessness to police relations to education reform and youth development.
The club has taken aim at a wide variety of issues during Johnson’s time there, but more than anything, Johnson said she has always strived to carry on the legacy of legendary Newtown Florist Club members such as Ruby Wilkins and Faye Bush, who saw injustice happening in their community 60 years ago and decided to do something about it.
For Johnson and the rest of the Newtown community, it’s simply a way of life.
“I didn’t decide it,” she said. “It was just my concern for the community and righting the wrongs of all the things that I saw.
“All the things that I lived.”