Moody Johnson: Growing up in Palmetto

Moody Johnson attended Lincoln Memorial High School in Palmetto.
Moody Johnson attended Lincoln Memorial High School in Palmetto.

If you’ve been involved in any efforts for the betterment of our North River community in the last 50-some years, you’ve probably had the pleasure of meeting Moody Johnson. While shaking your hand, he introduces himself: “My name’s Moody Johnson. I’m Rosa May’s son and Snake’s boy from Palmetto, Fla., which is God’s part of the south, gateway to the booming north; where men are men and women are proud of it. I got dirt between my toes, I got a sandspur on my heel; I can run through the grove backwards, spit a seed on the bank and watch a tree grow. And my favorite meal just happens to be buzzard lips and mosquito hips mother dining termite rights and grape fruit gravy. But none of that will matter in the end just tell the whole world that Moody Johnson truly, truly loves mullet.”

Being the pillar of the community that he is, Moody Johnson was the first person to turn in an interview in our Unheard Stories project. This project started because the Palmetto Historical Park is actively seeking old photographs, documents and any other items that relate to Palmetto’s black community.

The Park was founded by volunteers and the collection has all been donated. This means that research can be hit or miss: if you’re researching churches or schools that are located within blocks of the Park, we have tons of information because those organizations are great records keepers and donors. The downside is that there are many interesting topics in the history of Palmetto that we know little about. One of the gaps in our collection is Palmetto’s African American heritage. We have information about a few notable people, but overall black Palmetto is underrepresented in the museum.

The “Unheard Stories” interview project is an attempt to fill that void. The Manatee County Clerk has purchased digital audio recorders which are available for checkout to anyone in the community who is interested in helping us record oral histories. In conjunction with the Manatee County Agricultural Museum (which is seeking agriculture-related stories), we will be offering interview workshops where volunteers can learn how to use the recorders to capture history.

In Moody’s interview, he paints a picture of the friendly, tight-knit community he grew up in and even notes which families lived where (some researcher one day will be ridiculously grateful for Moody’s keen memory and attention to detail!). He still remembers the sign hanging in a local shop window stating: “If the meat’s good, tell others. If it’s bad, tell us!” Directly in front of his childhood home was Mr. Wiles Harrison’s grove. Neighborhood kids spent untold hours playing in that grove, climbing trees and eating guavas, tangerines and grapefruit. Moody recalls seeing his first panther in that grove, bobcats and cottontails, too. Being mischievous boys at the time, Moody and his older brother Eugene would dare Mr. Harrison to catch them: “he’d be on the tractor and of course we’d do our devilment and have to run.”

Moody and Gene attended vacation Bible school at a few different churches, “because in the summer you didn’t have idle time, your parents made sure you were doing something.” When he was older, Moody remembers his father and Mr. Freddy Williams being some of the first men he’d seen load a lawn mower in the back of a truck and make money mowing yards. Naturally, he and Gene had to follow suit by getting customers in Washington Park. “We had to do it right, if not Daddy would get on us. We had to pick up all the Carnation milk cans, rocks, clothing hangers, all those kinda things.” They’d charge 50 cents per yard, and were glad to get it.

Moody was part of the team that helped build the Palmetto Youth Center. “I know that there’s a god somewhere because there’s no way under the sun that we coulda got that job done without God being on our side: young men carrying pallets of blocks up a scaffold, holding on with one hand… Mud all up those scaffolds and no one ever got hurt or killed. Just a remarkable feat.” Moody recalls sitting in the shade of a tree and chipping mud off old blocks that had been donated to build the Youth Center. He notes that the property was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, “who I don’t think ever received enough credit for it.” They were dedicated to making a place for the kids who were not allowed in the Boys & Girl’s Club because of the color of their skin. “But all that changed in due time.”

Learn about Moody’s years at Lincoln Memorial High School and explore the changes brought by integration in next week’s article.

Tori Chasey Edwards, curator of the Palmetto Historical Park, enjoys horrifying schoolchildren by explaining the nature and use of chamber pots. She calls it education. Email: tori.edwards@manateeclerk.com Phone: 941-723-4991.

You can help preserve local history

Family and business histories are important to our local heritage. We have many unheard stories here in Manatee County! The Historical Resources Department of the Clerk of Circuit Court needs your help to preserve this history. Do you have a Manatee County family member or friend who has interesting stories to tell about what our community was like and how it became what it is? Are you familiar with a long-time business that has had a significant impact on our community? Assist in maintaining and celebrating this heritage by becoming a part of this effort. There will be two opportunities to attend an interview training to teach the steps of the interviewing process on Saturday, July 16th, 10 – 12 AM; the same training will be repeated on Tuesday, July 19th, 6 – 8 PM. If you are interested but need an alternative time, please call 721-2034 to make arrangements. The training will be held in the Palmetto Carnegie Library, 515 10th Ave. West, Palmetto. Refreshments will be provided. RSVPs are necessary. Contact: Tori at 723-4991; tori.edwards@manateeclerk.com or Melissa at 721-2034;melissa.dagenais@manateeclerk.com.