Partner George Febres
Saint Louis Cemetery Number 1 New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana, USA
Jerah Williams Johnson (May 21, 1931 - February 12, 2017) was one of the University of New Orleans's founding faculty members. In the mid-1990s Johnson and his partner George Febres purchased and restored an abandoned plot at historic Saint Louis Cemetery Number One. The handsome marble tomb they erected bears their names: Jerah Johnson, Historian, and George Febres, Artist. Not only did they fix up their own property, but as a provision of the sale they requested permission to clean up the crumbling tomb next door. New Orleans cemetery expert Robert Florence states this case of pioneering graveyard restoration triggered a gentrification of sorts, as the general condition of St. Louis Cemetery #1 surrounding this tomb appears spruced up.
Jerah Williams Johnson was born in south Georgia in 1931. His parents relocated the family to Venezuela and then to France during the late 1930s. He spent much of World War II in London and returned to Georgia to finish high school at the age of 16. Johnson earned his undergraduate degree at Emory University and his doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He majored in history at UNC with minors in both linguistics and comparative literature. In 1956-58 he spent time in France on a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Paris. He later confessed that most of his time there was spent in cafes drinking coffee and cognac. He joined the faculty of what was then the Louisiana State University at New Orleans (LSUNO) in 1959, a year after the university opened, and helped form the character and culture of the department of history. His field was Renaissance Europe, but he taught Louisiana history, world history, and the introductory graduate course in research and writing. Taking a job at a new branch of LSU might have seemed an odd choice for some at the time. Johnson recalled telling his grandmother "I'm going to risk it" when he accepted a UNO position. In fact, the decision came easily. Teaching posts were scarce in 1959, and his other offers were from Northwestern State in Natchitoches and a small Maryland college. New Orleans seemed a far more enticing place to live, and Johnson embraced the city and its history. He wrote pioneering articles on African-American culture in Congo Square and the French influence in early New Orleans. A UNO Driftwood article at the time of his 2003 retirement quoted Jerah's opinion of his adopted city. "Why on earth live anywhere else, unless it is smack dab in the middle of lower Manhattan or the Left Bank of Paris, and both would require far too much money." Prof. Johnson served as department chairman from 1968 to 1980. Prof. Gerry Bodet was along-time colleague of Jerah and recalls, "A department meeting where Jerah held forth was an event to be looked forward to. True, the mundane matters of policy were on the agenda, but inevitably these would morph into questions of philosophical truth, or the lack thereof, with a wry humor peppering the discussion." Jerah contributed to numerous university committees, advised students, and helped to build a vibrant history program. He was especially proud of his efforts to integrate the history faculty. During his tenure as chair, he promoted the international mission of the university by approving the study abroad program in Munich – the forerunner of the immensely successful Innsbruck summer school. Because of his widespread interests, his extraordinary erudition, and his aesthetic appreciation of the arts, architecture, and design, colleagues fittingly referred to him as the Department's "Renaissance Man."
Jerah Johnson died Sunday February 12 at the age of 85. He had been retired from UNO since 2003.
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