Hill District aids 91-year-old woman after fire

After Katie Johnson lost her home and sister to fire, her Hill District neighbors have been doing their part to lift and heal her spirit

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During the 72 years she lived in her Hill District home, Katie Johnson helped win civil rights for Pittsburgh's black community. She had a successful career as a manager at the Port Authority of Allegheny County. She got married and raised a son. She took care of her mother in her old age, and she grew old herself.

Then, in one afternoon, a fire destroyed it.

On Jan. 29, Ms. Johnson, 91, watched her Shawnee Street home disappear behind torrents of smoke. But all she could think of was her sister, Thelma Witherspoon, who lived next door, where the fire started.

"Where's my sister?" she kept asking friends and firefighters. "Where's my sister?"

At first, Ms. Johnson held out hope that Ms. Witherspoon, who was 95, made it out before the fire started. She just couldn't imagine life without her. She was her best friend, her spiritual adviser. She was the last of her seven siblings still alive.

But as the fire grew, Ms. Witherspoon's safety became more doubtful. Flames were gushing out of her bedroom window, and she was nowhere to be found. Ms. Johnson began focusing on the less ambitious hope that she died of smoke inhalation rather than burns from the fire, the cause of which remains unknown.

Finally, her sister's home collapsed, leaving only the chimney standing. Ms. Johnson's own roof caved in before firefighters quelled the blaze.

Her friends sat her on a neighbor's couch, worried about her health. She wore a blank expression and said almost nothing while thoughts swirled in her head. She tried to fathom how the fire fit into God's plan. She wondered where she would sleep that night.

It felt like a big part of her life had ended. But her friends were already gathering around her, watching over her, fortifying her against the loss.

In the weeks to come, the community she had given so much to would help her get back on her feet.

Hill District leader

Ms. Johnson was 19 when she bought the three-story brick home, working two jobs to save up for the down payment of a couple hundred dollars.

Sheltered from the street by a grassy slope, it seemed like a good place for her and her mother to plant roots in Pittsburgh.

"I always wanted to buy [my mother] a house on top of a hill," Ms. Johnson said. "When I saw that house, I knew it was the one."

Born in Bainbridge, Ga., Ms. Johnson settled in the Hill District in 1936 at age 13, following her siblings who came in search of work. The Bethel AME Church became the center of her social and spiritual life, a place it still occupies today.

Before long, Ms. Johnson was a prominent member of Pittsburgh's black community. As office manager at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, a civil rights organization, she lobbied to improve conditions for factory workers and tried to dissuade whites from fleeing when blacks moved into neighborhoods.

In the 1940s, she and other women at the Urban League staged sit-ins to integrate a popular restaurant Downtown. The cooks made a show of spitting in their food, but they ate around it.

"We would try to be smart enough to see where they were spitting," Ms. Johnson said. "Our objective was to make it a place blacks could go, and we wouldn't let something like that stop us."

She later became the first black female manager at the Port Authority of Allegheny County. She was tasked with creating its consumer relations department after consumer safety became a big issue in the 1960s. Then she moved to the equal opportunity department, where she oversaw complaints of discrimination and made sure that a portion of contracts went to blacks and women.

At the Port Authority, she confronted the problem of youngsters mistreating bus drivers. Her idea was to have drivers talk with students about their jobs.

"The kids get on the bus and think, 'This is a guy who takes me where I want to go.' They wouldn't see him as a real person," she said. After getting to know the drivers, they treated them with respect.

With her career success and dignified bearing, Ms. Johnson was a role model to girls in the Hill District, said Janet Moyo, a longtime friend. When Ms. Moyo attended Bethel AME as a child, she grew attached to Ms. Johnson and came to see her as a mentor. Later, she asked her to direct her wedding.

Ms. Johnson would keep her and other girls at the church "under control" with kind words, advice, and by finding them summer jobs, she said.

"She made the girls feel they were somebody," Ms. Moyo said. "She had the class and the sophistication, and we all looked up to her."

Community support

The fire left Ms. Johnson exhausted -- physically, emotionally and spiritually. In her struggle to understand the tragedy, she wondered if God had left her.

Then, Ms. Moyo invited her to stay with her in Gibsonia. Ms. Johnson started to feel better after she arrived at the pillared home on a spacious country lot.

"I felt like God had left me at that point, until I got here," Ms. Johnson said while sitting in Ms. Moyo's dining room. "I realized God hadn't forsaken me. I still don't know why [it happened], and I may never. But God couldn't have connected me with better people."

Even after the spiritual rebound, Ms. Johnson was shaken -- "my soul was unpleasant," she said. Ms. Moyo sat by her bed until she fell asleep.

Ms. Johnson is enjoying her stay in Gibsonia, but she sometimes bickers with Ms. Moyo and her twin sister, Janice Brown, who visits often. She insists on doing things by herself, such as crossing a busy street and carrying a heavy breakfast tray down the stairs. The sisters worry that she strains herself -- she suffered a stroke in 2008, and a heart attack last year left her with stents in her arteries -- but it isn't her nature to be passive.

"She's tireless and always active, always thinking, always doing," said Elise Yanders, who knows her through the Pittsburgh Conference of the AME Church. "I can't see her slowing down."

Ms. Johnson received heaps of support in the days after the fire. Hundreds of calls inundated her cell phone, jamming her voice mail inbox. Hill District residents filled her new closet with dresses, suits and pajamas. They packed trays of chicken and lasagna into the trunk of her car.

When Ms. Johnson returned to her home, she found a scene of surreal desolation. Water from fire hoses had broken through the windows, coating the floors and walls with ice mixed with ash and ceiling fragments. Pillars of ice as thick as tree trunks connected the floor and ceiling in her dining room.

On the dining table, her Bible was open to the Book of Psalms, just as she had left it.

It was strangely beautiful, she thought.

A dynamic bond

Ms. Witherspoon shared her sister's ideals of charity and hard work. The qualities came from their mother, Ms. Johnson said, who taught her children to read the Bible and lived by the phrase, "God blesses the child that has his own."

While Ms. Johnson held big jobs in companies and service organizations, Ms. Witherspoon's efforts had a grass-roots quality. She mentored dozens of young people over the years, often students or migrants from the South. She usually had one or two of them living in her home free of charge.

One of those youngsters was Johnnie Miott, who knew almost no one in Pittsburgh when he moved here from South Carolina at age 29. Ms. Witherspoon helped him build a life here, giving him a place to stay and ushering him into the Bethel AME community.

With her mixture of kindness and assertiveness, and her talent as a listener, she was also a source of guidance for him. When Mr. Miott got hot-headed about something, she would cool him down, urging him to resolve it peacefully.

"She was a gentle fighter -- a fighter who didn't believe in violence," Mr. Miott said.

For half a century, Ms. Witherspoon cooked Bethel AME's giant Thanksgiving and New Year's dinners, earning fame for her delicious chicken, rice, and macaroni and cheese. When she was in her 90s and arthritis and leg problems forced her to use a walker, some church members thought she should give up her duties, but Ms. Witherspoon wouldn't hear of it.

Together, the sisters were an institution in the Hill District, where their infectious devotion to religion and community influenced many lives. They were pillars of Bethel AME, tithing 10 percent of their incomes.

"When those ladies are gone, oh boy, there's going to be a void," Ms. Moyo said. "The young people don't give that much money."

The sisters were always close, but their relationship deepened about 20 years ago, after Ms. Johnson invited Ms. Witherspoon to move into the house next door, which she also owned.

As neighbors, they ate most of their meals together and had intimate conversations about family, church and God. They took care of each other when they were sick. Ms. Johnson helped her older sister when arthritis slowed her down, and Ms. Witherspoon nursed her younger sister after her stroke and heart attack.

"You could see the love between them. They didn't even have to say anything," Ms. Moyo said. "They were each other's lives."

Ms. Witherspoon's stature in the community brought 250 people to her funeral Feb. 4 at Bethel AME, a number that Ms. Johnson recounted with pride. Dozens of former youngsters Ms. Witherspoon helped to raise sat near Ms. Johnson, like members of the family.

"It was like a community celebration," Mr. Miott said.

Prior to the service, Ms. Johnson and a handful of friends and family gathered at Allegheny Cemetery for a private burial. Before the casket was lowered, she placed a rose on top and rested her hand on its surface.

"I felt that at that moment, she wasn't in the casket, but that we were together for the last time," Ms. Johnson said.

Normally stoic, she broke down in sobs.

Continuing faith

Three weeks after the fire, Ms. Brown drove Ms. Johnson from Gibsonia to Bethel AME so she could attend the Sunday service there, as she had thousands of times before. Wearing one of her donated dresses, Ms. Johnson stepped into the church and hugged her friends.

The sermon, by Rev. James McLemore, focused on a Gospel story of a sick woman who was healed after touching Jesus as he walked through a crowd. "Thy faith hath made thee whole," Jesus tells the woman in the story.

"She had the faith, and she just had to touch him to be healed. That's the kind of faith we have," Ms. Johnson said. "You have to really believe that God will not forsake you. It's not easy."

Ms. Johnson is still recovering from her sister's death. The other day, she went a long time without thinking about the fire. Then she opened a drawer and saw a ladle similar to one her sister used in her cooking. The painful memories were back.

She still wonders why God allowed the tragedy to happen, but she's found some peace. It's like the Book of Job, she tells herself. God allows bad things to happen to good people.

Along with these spiritual deliberations, Ms. Johnson has lots of earthly problems. She has spent hours sorting out her mail delivery, her bills and her Social Security.

Ms. Moyo has told her she can stay in Gibsonia as long as she'd like. She's glad to have her. More than 50 years after Ms. Johnson became her role model at Bethel AME, Ms. Moyo is still in awe of her. She marvels at her strength of body and mind, her determination to do things for herself. She admires her faith, the hours she spends praying and reading the Bible. She's proud of her stature in the Hill District community.

The long, deep conversations they have at the end of the day are worth the driving her on errands and the occasional bickering.

"I get more joy out of Katie being here than she gets out of me," Ms. Moyo said.

Ms. Johnson wants to move back to the Hill District. With her home slated for demolition, that will be difficult. She's had offers to stay at other places nearby, but her son, an economist who works in Washington, D.C., doesn't think it would be good for her health to be close to the site of the fire.

Still, she's determined to move back.

"There's a certain kinship in that area," she said.

Richard Webner: rwebner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.

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