More than anything else, perhaps, Josephine Watkins-Johnson was a survivor and a believer. She firmly believed that the latter had a lot to do with the former.
Ms. Watkins-Johnson was told she wouldn’t survive the birth of one of her children.
When she was in her late 30s, she was hospitalized with a rare blood disease and given six months to live. “But she didn’t put her trust and faith in doctors,” her daughter Donna Watkins said. “She put her trust and faith in God.”
In 1988, Ms. Watkins-Johnson was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.
She survived — without chemotherapy or radiation.
She had a stroke three years ago.
Time and time again, Ms. Watkins-Johnson’s prayers were answered. “She believed in the power of prayer,” said Ms. Watkins.
Ms. Watkins-Johnson’s faith and spirituality remained with her up to the Greenport woman’s death March 12 at Peconic Landing in Greenport. She was 99. The cause of death was not disclosed, but Ms. Watkins said it was not related to COVID-19.
“She was a laborer in the Lord’s vineyard for 99 years and she clothed the naked, she fed the hungry,” Ms. Watkins said. “She comforted those who experienced a loss of some type. She championed the underdog.”
Ms. Watkins-Johnson was born March 3, 1921, in Richmond, Va. She was 3 years old when her family moved to Greenport and, by age 13, she began working as a domestic servant. She went to cosmetology school and became a licensed hair dresser early in her career. Later, she was an administrator and admissions director at the Swedish Institute of Massage in Manhattan. In the 1960s and 1970s, she ran a thriving catering business, according to her daughter.
Ms. Watkins-Johnson is credited as having been the first black member of the Greenport school board, someone who fought for the school to institute a free lunch program. She was a member of Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and known for being a battler for causes with a sharp sense of justice. She was involved with countless organizations.
“My mother was not a lightweight,” Ms. Watkins said. “She wielded a lot of power. When she spoke, people heard.”
But it was her spiritual faith that stood out.
Although Ms. Watkins-Johnson was Methodist, her family was the first black family to join St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport, and she actively supported a number of churches, her daughter said.
Ms. Watkins said her mother was introduced to the teachings of the Unity Church in the early 1970s and learned meditation and affirmative prayer.
“She believed there was an inner Christ in all of us,” Ms. Watkins said in a phone interview from her home in Southport, Conn. “She would go to church at 7:30 and then she would drive to Huntington and she would attend the Unity church in Huntington every Sunday after attending services at the Lutheran church. I’m sure she did it for a good twenty years.”
The Watkins-Johnson home on Kaplan Avenue in Greenport was known for its fun parties for adults and children, but prayer was big there, too. Ms. Watkins recalled the prayer room in the back of the house that was open to, well, anybody.
“It stayed open all the time,” Ms. Watkins said. “It was a sacred space. It was a sacred place. People could just sit in that prayer room and meditate and pray and just sit.”
Ms. Watkins-Johnson obviously saw a lot in her 99 years and nine days of life. She had told tales of seeing people in Greenport wearing sheets and heading off to Ku Klux Klan rallies. The Klan, she said in a 2012 Suffolk Times article, never seemed to bother the black community. “They really weren’t out for the blacks,” she said. “They were really more after the Catholics.”
Ms. Watkins recalled when her mother, one of the first Greenport residents to move into Peconic Landing in 2003, suffered a stroke one Sunday in 2017.
“Initially, she was unable to speak, walk or recognize anyone and the prognosis looked poor,” said Ms. Watkins.
To help prepare for her mother’s recovery, Ms. Watkins brought with her a bag that included photos for her mom to identify, a white board to see if she could write and words for her to read on a hospital visit just four days later. She was stunned to be greeted by her mother, asking her, “What’s in the bag?”
To that, the astonished daughter could only reply: “Nothing you need, Mom. Nothing.”
Ms. Watkins-Johnson rallied from a recent bout with pneumonia so she could celebrate her 99th birthday with a pizza party. “She loved pizza,” said Ms. Watkins.
Julie Lane of Greenport was a longtime friend of Ms. Watkins-Johnson. “Jo and I used to kid,” Ms. Lane said. “She used to call me her Jewish daughter and I would call her my black mother.”
She added, “Most people who had love in their hearts for her, gravitated toward her, and she was just a remarkable woman.”
Ms. Watkins-Johnson’s first husband, Ralph Walter Watkins, died in 1987. She remarried Robert A. Johnson in 1991 at the age of 70.
The youngest of eight children (all predeceased), Ms. Watkins-Johnson also had a predeceased son, Wendel, and a predeceased daughter, Yvonne. She is survived by a son, Thomas Watkins Sr., Ms. Watkins, four grandsons and one great-granddaughter.
Ms. Watkins-Johnson will be buried at Calverton National Cemetery with her first husband Wednesday, March 25. Because of restrictions, no family or friends may attend and no funeral procession is allowed. A memorial service and celebration is planned for a later date.
Because of the coronavirus scare, a lockdown at Peconic Landing began March 9, and Ms. Watkins said she was quarantined at the retirement community as well. She was there on March 9 to watch as Garret Johnson, pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, sang to her mother. “He sang ‘Precious Lord’ to her, and my mother was smiling,” said Ms. Watkins.
Ms. Watkins is convinced her mother was ready for the next step in her journey. “She said: ‘I’m tired. I just want to sleep. I don’t want to eat. I want to sleep.’ ”
Ms. Watkins-Johnson died with a wooden cross in her hand. The last song she heard before her death was Pastor Johnson singing, “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”
Said Ms. Watkins, “What a wonderful run, and what a way to go.”