William H. Johnson grew up in a segregated school system in Plumerville, Arkansas. As a black man born in the late 1930s, he has had many interesting life experiences.
A quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, Johnson also was an ambitious man and knew he wanted to achieve in life even though the times were not favorable for black men.
So, after he graduated from high school, he moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in search of a good job. He was dissatisfied with the limited job opportunities there, so he moved to Omaha, where his parents had relocated for his dad’s job.
In Omaha, Johnson was employed as a custodian, cook helper, bakery helper and at the Omaha Steel foundry.
He was soon to marry Evelyn Gunnels and was happy to have a job, but he wanted a job with upward mobility.
On one of his jobs, he was talking to a cook who mentioned that her husband was a captain in the Omaha Fire Department. She suggested that he should apply and take the test. He did and was hired by the Fire Department in 1961.
The fire stations were segregated in Omaha until 1957, but when Johnson came on in 1961, there was still some segregation but less than before.
By the 1970s, the department began to change, allowing black people to move up through the ranks. Black firefighters were now able to attend the National Fire Academy and pursue other avenues of education. Johnson took full advantage of those opportunities.
In February 1971, he was promoted to the rank of captain and assigned to the Fire Department Training Bureau, becoming the first African-American assigned to that bureau. He enrolled in the continuing education program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and later enrolled in the fire science program, working toward an associate degree in fire technology.
Johnson achieved many firsts as an African-American, including being elected to the firefighters union’s executive board. In 1978, he was made chief of training in the Training Bureau.
In 1980, he was promoted to battalion chief, the second African-American promoted to that rank.
Johnson continued to get promotions, and he was named acting chief by then-Mayor P.J. Morgan when Chief Horton Dahlquist resigned.
He was not interested in applying for fire chief, as he felt it would take too much time away from his family.
In 1990, he was the first African-American to be promoted to assistant fire chief, and then, once again, was appointed acting fire chief by then-Mayor Hal Daub upon retirement of the fire chief.
Johnson, a modest man, said, “I stood on the shoulders of other African-American firefighters who paved the way for those coming behind them. Clarence Davis, Paul Orduna, Chappell Curtis, Mel Freeman, and Manuel Cook, all helped with my upward mobility.”
Johnson was a founding member of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters in 1974. He served several terms as president and treasurer, and was treasurer of the North Central Region of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.
As a retired firefighter, he continues to volunteer at the Red Cross as he has since 1955 and is a voluntary board member of its Metro Omaha/Council Bluffs chapter of the Kansas/Nebraska Region. He is also a member of the Prospect Hill Cemetery Foundation Board of Trustees, and the trustee chairman emeritus at his church.
He and his wife, Evelyn, have three sons, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. The couple are great role models for their family.