Those who knew Paul H. Johnson Sr. said you could always count on him "to tell it like it is."
The Huntington civil rights leader and pioneer, who championed the first African American candidates for Huntington Town Board and other offices, was hailed as a relentless advocate for his community, pushing to revitalize Huntington Station and fighting for equality and voting rights for all.
On Saturday, three generations of Johnson’s family and Huntington town leaders honored Johnson, who died in February 2020 at the age of 90, by renaming Gateway Plaza on New York Avenue in Huntington Station for him and adding a new historic marker for Odd Fellows Hall, which was built in 1909.
The unveiling of two signs and the dedication at the site marks where Odd Fellows Hall, a historic meeting place for African Americans from 1922 to 1945, stood until 2017.
The building was also a meeting place for the Elks Club and Boy Scout Unit 106. It served as a kosher deli and a barbershop until it was demolished to build the Renaissance Downtowns apartment and office building on a blighted corner.
Johnson’s granddaughter, Anastasia Johnson, said Saturday that the loss of her grandfather is still raw, but she sees the legacy he left in Huntington. She said he raised her to stand up for change and to fight for equality.
"I hope everyone here represents Huntington the way he did and continues to grow and become one," she said.
Johnson was a Class of 1948 graduate of Huntington High School and a U.S. Army veteran and paratrooper in the Korean War. He was also a loyal worshipper at Evergreen Baptist Church.
Johnson ran several campaigns, including to elect the first African American council member, Glenda Jackson, and to add more diverse voices to represent Huntington, Supervisor Chad Lupinacci said.
"He was a courageous man who fought for voting rights and ensuring we had clear representation, but he truly believed in the generational encouragement," Huntington NAACP president Veronique Bailey said. "He is a pillar because his legacy continues on and the fight continues on so we have the opportunity he fought for."
Huntington Councilwoman Joan Cergol said sculptures at the plaza show a storyteller, like Johnson, speaking to younger generations and inspiring musicians like John Coltrane, Harry Chapin and Mariah Carey. She said Johnson was always focused on passing his wisdom to younger generations.
Johnson was often a fixture at town meetings and decried the loss of Huntington Station’s downtown, which was razed as part of a 1960s urban renewal project that displaced the African American and minority communities.
"This was a great Huntingtonian lost just before the world changed our lives as we knew it," Cergol said. "Although his voice was silenced, I know his children and family will continue to hand down lessons to capture the hearts and hopes of future generations."