James S. “Jimmy” Johnson III, a longtime educator and re-enactor of African-American life during the Civil War era, died Monday. He was 66.
Johnson’s students at Hogan Preparatory Academy High School, where Johnson served as a substitute instructor and track coach, admired him for his enthusiasm for many subjects, not just the Civil War.
“It’s been a very somber day here at Hogan, and we have called in grief counselors,” said Kelli Jackson, assistant to the Hogan high school principal.
Most students and staff members learned of Johnson’s death Thursday, she said.
“He left an impact you would not believe.”
Kansas City area students of the Civil War knew Johnson for his many appearances portraying an African-American soldier.
In those presentations, Johnson discussed his great-grandfather, a former slave named George Washington, who had served in the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment after escaping from Missouri in 1862.
Johnson sometimes led Hogan students on field trips to the Quindaro district of Kansas City, Kan., which had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
In 1996, Johnson led an archaeological dig on the former Platte County farm from which Washington had escaped. Johnson and a team of Boy Scouts spent much of that autumn mapping the site and digging for artifacts.
The dig had a personal connection for Johnson. During his research, he learned of Jesse Miller, the 19th-century owner of the Platte County farm who once had owned Johnson’s great-grandfather.
Johnson then tracked down Gordon Miller, a descendant of Jesse Miller who also was interested in Platte County history.
“We probably chatted every other night,” Johnson said at the time of Miller, now deceased. “I would have liked him regardless of the symbolic aspect of our relationship.”
In 2009, Johnson met Kansas City lawyer Gary Jenkins, who was filming the documentary “Negroes to Hire” about Missouri’s slave-holding legacy.
“I had done all this research and had all these disparate stories without any cohesion, and I was ready to give up,” said Jenkins.
“But Jimmy tied it all together, especially with his story about his Platte County farm project and how the descendants of the slave and slave master met up and became friends.”
At Hogan, Johnson established an astronomy club, allowing students to use his telescopes. He also escorted students to an annual minority media conference.
He always emphasized the connection between the classroom and the workplace, stressing professionalism to students who came to class late, Jackson said.
“One of his favorite sayings was ‘You’re late, you’re fired,’ ” said Jackson.
Johnson was a Vietnam War veteran and a board member of the Jackson County Historical Society.
He had cancer, said Nelson Johnson, a brother.
“He was extremely into whatever he intended to do, beyond the call,” the brother said.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Watkins Heritage Chapel, 4000 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd. Burial is Monday at Leavenworth National Cemetery.