by William Carrington
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Kimila Johnson was an American biologist who made fundamental contributions to the understanding of reproduction of left-handed molluscs such as coquina clams (genus Dohax) and quahogs (genus Mercenaria).
She was born on August 24, 1966 in Bessemer, Alabama. Her father, Ezekiel Johnson, was a minister in the Episcopal Church of Alabama and was active in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
He was locally famous for having held the hand of the first black girl to enter Jubal Early Junior High School in Bessemer on the day that it was first integrated in 1958. He was spat on repeatedly by a crowd of white steelworkers that day, staining his seersucker suit with tobacco stains.
The event was shown on several national television news shows and was later cited by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch (Eyes on the Prize, 1991) as a seminal moment in some white Southerners’ attitudes towards school integration. Some of the statements made by Harper Lee in her last public interview have been read to suggest that Ezekiel Johnson was the model for Atticus Finch.
A 1968 investigatory series by the Birmingham Daily News suggested that Ezekiel Johnson was implicated in the theft of congregational funds that had been raised to establish a home for orphaned lepers in the Solomon Islands, but a grand jury impaneled on the matter refused to bring charges.
Through his attorneys, Johnson acknowledged poor bookkeeping on the part of the state Episcopal ministry but blamed all malfeasance on the portion of the operation administered by the First Anabaptist Congregation of Dothan, Alabama, which co-sponsored the orphanage.
Johnson’s position was affected by public shock at the revelation that the first deacon of the Dothan Anabaptist church, Loomis Anderson, was in possession of a collection of Japanese skulls that he had collected in the Solomon Islands during World War II.
Ezekiel Johnson testified before the grand jury that he was unaware of Anderson’s collection, but there was conflicting testimony as to whether Anderson had attached one of the skulls to a golf cart in which Johnson had ridden during a round at the Dothan Country Club in 1967.
In the end, as noted above, no charges were pressed against Johnson, though Anderson served eight years in prison for embezzlement and was forced to relinquish his skull collection. In the account of Taylor (1991), the prosecution and publicity surrounding the case was characterized as an attempt by local segregationist politicians and editorialists to pay Johnson back for what was perceived to have been his earlier betrayal of the segregationist cause.
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Johnson’s mother, Temple Drake Johnson, grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was childhood friends with both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. She attended Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi and then became the first woman to graduate from the University of Alabama School of Pharmacy.
In partnership with an older male cousin, she ran a small drugstore in Kosciusko, Alabama, a rural area several miles outside of Bessemer, for much of the 1950s and 1960s. Drake Johnson’s store — The Chemist — was one of the first drugstores in Alabama to carry a full line of contraceptive technologies, including the pill.
From 1962-64, the back room of The Chemist served as an abortion clinic that was run with help from a Emmaline Wallace, a second cousin of then-governor George Wallace. The abortion clinic was closed down due to pressure from George Wallace, who was concerned about national embarrassment, as he was considering mounting a presidential campaign, which he did in 1968 and then again in 1972.
The Chemist was also later the setting for an important scene in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning, in which Gene Hackman is nearly murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. During breaks in filming of Mississippi Burning, Hackman was said to have greatly enjoyed Coca-Cola ice cream floats made at The Chemist’s soda counter, though by then the shop was under new management.
Kimila Johnson herself was raised in Bessemer under comfortable circumstances. Her family was supported by the income from her mother’s drugstore, from her father’s ministerial work, and from dividends that accrued through family stock holdings on her mother’s side in the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain.
The Johnson family had a large Victorian house in Bessemer and also, from 1968 onward, a beach house at Paradise Cove, Florida, twenty miles east of Pensacola. Johnson said later in life that summers spent at the beach house were influential in her decision to go into intertidal and estuarine biology.
Kamila Johnson and her father gathered oysters and clams in the tidal flats near their house during the summer. She reflected later that it was during the chopping, breading, frying and eating of those animals that she developed her unsentimental attitude towards bivalves.
She attended Bessemer High School from 1980 to 1984 where she was Editor of the school newspaper and worked as a part-time fry cook at Arthur Treacher’s.
Johnson was subsequently educated at Tulane University (BS, 1988) and Rice University (Ph.D. 1992). She did her thesis under the supervision of Gideon Okomoto, who was at the time the world’s leading expert on both harp seals and abalone.
While at Rice, she met and married Abram Zucker (b. 1963), a philologist who had been appointed the youngest full professor in Texas history. In a 2007 interview with Bivalve, a trade publication, Johnson described her first meeting with Zucker:
I first saw him across the room when he and Gideon were emptying a vat of steamed crabs into a large colander, the steam boiling up over them and them both squinting from the sting of the bay seasoning. He had very nice tibia and metatarsa and looked a bit like Euell Gibbons, so of course I thought he was very attractive, but also, in that moment, it seemed to me that he had a gentleness about him and, as he shook the pot to get out the last few crabs, that he had an attention to detail that I didn’t see in other young men that I knew right then. It occurred to me that he might be a man to keep a woman happy.
Johnson and Zucker were married in September 1991 in the First Episcopal Church of Bessemer with Gideon Okamoto as the best man.
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Copyright © 2015 by William Carrington