Though the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ended his evening Saturday at the Lynchburg NAACP’s 39th annual Freedom Fund Banquet, his afternoon began somewhere a little quieter — Old City Cemetery, where his ancestors are buried.
“You can’t know who you are or where you are going unless you know where you came from. I come from Lynchburg, Virginia,” Johnson said. “My ancestors lived here. They lived where you live, they saw the same landscape you see, they walked the same land, their remains occupy the soil of this land.”
He addressed a crowded banquet hall of about 250 people in Timberlake United Methodist Church Saturday evening with the confidence of someone who knows exactly where he is going.
Johnson served as the Secretary of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2017; he led the third-largest cabinet of the U.S. government and oversaw 230,000 people. On two occasions, he was chosen as the designated survivor and would have become the next president in the case of a disaster or attack. As the senior legal official for the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2012, he gave the sign-off for the special forces raid in Pakistan that would kill Osama Bin Laden.
And on a Saturday afternoon in early November, he walked through Old City Cemetery with Lynchburg Museum System Director Ted Delaney, where he found the headstones of his great-grandmother and his great-great grandmother, learned their histories, and even read a family obituary from 1937, found by Delaney.
Delaney and Johnson also found the headstone of the Rev. Charles Johnson, Johnson’s great-grandfather, buried in White Rock Cemetery — a grave site nearly lost to his family. Born a slave in 1859, Charles Johnson eventually founded Lee Street Baptist Church in Bristol after emancipation, where he was the pastor for 42 years.
Standing by the plot near the entrance of Lynchburg’s first black cemetery, at a granite stone obelisk marking the grave, Johnson called his 88-year-old father to tell him he had found it.
“I’m told that he was a small man, with a big voice,” Johnson said of his great-grandfather in his remarks. “In those days, the preacher was not just the spiritual leader, he was the family counselor, he was the estate planner, he was the psychiatrist, he was the marriage counselor, and occasionally, I’m told, he had to break up a lynching, once in a while.”
Johnson’s speech was focused around history, both the history of his family and American history itself — many landmarks of which Johnson found himself entangled.
Born in New York City, Johnson said he came of age, politically, in 1968.
“A lot happened in 1968; everyone here over the age of 60 will remember that,” Johnson said. “The Vietnam War, the King assassination, the Kennedy assassination, the conventions, men orbiting the moon, Apollo 8.”
Later, he described meeting then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and could remember the exact day Obama called his office to tell him he was thinking about running for president — “I still have the pink message slip,” Johnson said.
“It was one of those moments in your life when you know history is knocking at your door — and I said, ‘Barack, if you run, I am with you all the way.’ And from that moment on, for the next two years, I was part of his campaign, I was part of his transition and part of his administration.”
Commenting on the current state of the Department of Homeland Security, Johnson noted it is now led by another acting secretary — Kevin McAleena — the fifth since the beginning of the Trump administration.
“That’s not a good place to be,” Johnson said.
Lynchburg NAACP Branch President Carl Hutcherson said it was important for the banquet to host Johnson, who he called an “international spokesperson.”
“I’m proud of the fact that [Johnson] is able to come and share his story with a somewhat smaller city,” Hutcherson said. “A lot of people go to the New Yorks, the Chicagos and the Atlantas, but he took time out to come here and be a part of this.”
In many ways, the visit felt like a “full circle,” Delaney said.
Delaney started his dig into the Johnson family history almost two decades before, when he worked at Old City Cemetery and was, coincidentally, helping to put together information for one of the Johnson family reunions. Though Secretary Jeh Johnson was not in attendance Delaney said he recently dug out a photo of the reunion and found a familiar face: Johnson’s father— the same man Johnson called after finding the grave of his ancestor earlier that day.
Delaney said he was proud Lynchburg could help Johnson learn more about his roots.
“In many ways history does rhyme; in many ways history does repeat itself,” Johnson said later that night. “In the span of your lifetime, you will see and do things beyond the comprehension you had as a young person.”
He referenced his father, who not only saw the Great Depression, a man on the moon, the rise of the internet and the iPhone, but a family lineage that denied what anyone could imagine decades before.
His final message was one of hope — he read from an article written by his grandfather for The New York Times a month before he died: “Faith in the ultimate strength and code of our nation as a whole, has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”
“I believe that,” Johnson said. “And I hope all of you believe that about our country.”
Reach Sarah Honosky at (434) 385-5556.