Shepherd Dr. Manson B. Johnson II, the dynamic leader and teacher of Holman Street Baptist Church in Houston’s Third Ward, died on May 31, 2020 from complications of COVID-19. He was 71.
For more than 40 years, the Shepherd Teacher was instrumental in pastoral ministry and community leadership that elevated Third Ward’s prominence politically and economically. A sharp dresser distinguished by his beard and handlebar mustache, he also directed Holman Street’s advancement in membership and impact. The church and its associated nonprofit, the South East Houston Community Development Corporation, Inc. (SEHCDC), own more than two dozen parcels in Third Ward.
“He always told us: If you don’t have land, you don’t have anything. If you’ve got land, you control things. His vision was to buy as much land in Third Ward as he possibly could — and that’s what he did. To this day, we still own property in Third Ward for growth and opportunities down the line,” Holman Street Deacon Roosevelt Weeks said. “The building our church sits on right now used to be one of those one-hour motels where prostitutes hung out. We paid cash for that building. He saw the blight and wanted it gone. Where the administration building is used to be two crack houses. All along Holman, he bought land so that he could build houses for the community. He built those houses across from the church because he recognized that people need home ownership. He wanted people to own.”
The sentiment of community building was echoed by Texas State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who represents the area.
“The last time I talked to him, he was working on a project that dealt with health care and housing on the campus. He was applying for tax credits and I signed his letter,” Coleman said. “We go back working on those types of projects to the Third Ward Redevelopment Council, which he chaired, and the original Third Ward plan in 1992 for housing and revitalization which continues today. That was the predecessor to the Old Spanish Trail-Almeda Corridors TIRZ (the tax increment reinvestment zone) and the Houston Southeast Management District — and that was the beginning of change in the Third Ward. He continued to do that work on his campus and created the village around the church.”
Onslaught of Condolences
Johnson’s powerful preaching remained ever present as the church streamed previous messages for Sunday’s 7:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services. The campus has been closed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Identical posts appeared just after noon Sunday on the Holman Street Baptist Church and Manson B. Johnson Ministries Facebook pages. They said:
“It is with a heavy heart but faith in God to report Shepherd Teacher Manson B. Johnson has transitioned to his Heavenly home this morning. Our Shepherd Teacher loved serving God and God’s people. We find strength in knowing that to be absent from the body is to be present with God.
At this time please keep our beautiful First Lady, his children, family, Holman Street Baptist Church family, and the entire Houston community in your prayers. More details are coming soon. In the words of our Shepherd Teacher, ‘Stay on TOP! Winners are always at the top! Reach for the stars. Remember losing is [a] choice that you make!’”
Condolences flooded social media. The expressions were consistent: The Shepherd directed them to careers, he encouraged them to start businesses, he provided spiritual guidance, he helped build the community and he always implored them to “stay on top.”
Acknowledgments from elected officials quickly followed.
“Houston has lost a giant among men,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said in a statement. “He had a passion for truth and fought to create opportunities for vulnerable people. He had a direct impact on providing educational and housing opportunities for the Greater Third Ward area and was a valued member of the Texas Southern University family. He remained committed to the Word of God and his outstanding pastoral ministry. Pastor Manson B. Johnson will be greatly missed and celebrated for his invaluable visionary leadership which has enhanced the quality of life for many in the city of Houston. My deepest sympathy to his devoted wife and all of his loving children. Rest in Peace, my dear friend.”
U.S. Rep. Al Green said he had known Johnson for decades and considered him a dear friend.
“He was also a husband, father, deliverer of the Gospel, freedom fighter, teacher, mathematician, economic developer, and banker,” the congressman said in a statement. “While we are saddened by the loss of Pastor Johnson, we cherish his legacy of prayer, praise, and service. In his honor, we must continue the fight to defeat the coronavirus pandemic and eliminate systemic racism. I extend my sincere condolences and love to the Johnson family as well as the parishioners of the Holman Street Baptist Church.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also extended condolences and prayers to Johnson’s family.
“He was an icon among Houston’s faith leaders and a well-respected leader in our community.
Pastor Johnson was passionate about the work he did at Holman Street Baptist Church, Texas Southern University, and for charitable causes in and around Third Ward,” a statement said. “He was always willing to lend his time and space at his church when our City needed to mobilize resources to help people after Hurricane Harvey and other disasters. He was a faithful servant leader. Houston will miss his big heart, friendly smile, and dynamic presence.”
Houston City Council District D member Carolyn Shabazz, a fellow TSU graduate who represents Third Ward, also offered reflections.
“Shepherd Teacher Manson Johnson was a presence as well as a Pastor. He could walk into a room and take charge. He had that signature mustache and was always impeccably dressed, upbeat and thinking about how he could uplift the community,” she said in a statement. “Although he was not a native Houstonian, he embraced the city and in particular, the Third Ward community. He was also an avid supporter of Jack Yates High School and Texas Southern University. To say that he will be missed is definitely an understatement. ‘Stay On Top’ Pastor as you sit high and continue to intercede for us all.”
Journey to the Top
Manson Bracy Johnson was born in Nashville, Tennessee on Oct. 14, 1948 and reared in Starkville, Mississippi. His father was a pastor and his mother worked as a teacher and principal.
After graduating from high school in 1966, he arrived in Houston to attend Texas Southern University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and government. He later received a certified degree in mathematics from Prairie View A&M University.
He taught at Cullen Middle School in the Houston Independent School District where he served as head of the mathematics department and earned a reputation for no-nonsense in his commitment to raising the performance of his students.
Johnson united with Holman Street during his college years. His first job at the church was as a janitor. He accepted his calling to preach in 1975 and was later named youth pastor. Not yet 30 years old, Johnson became the Shepherd in 1977.
In 1998, Holman Street Baptist Church moved into a new worship center. The sanctuary hosts two Sunday morning services and the Lord’s Supper each First Sunday evening. The church has more than 30 active ministries.
Mentor and Builder of Men
The Shepherd also helped people advance individually.
Deacon Gerald Gistand was at a crossroads in his life when he first encountered Johnson. In his late 20s and married, he’d been laid off from an 8 ½-year concrete job and was looking for direction. The Shepherd advised him to choose a career in fields with the income and stability to build families, communities and churches. Law enforcement. Fire fighting. Law. Medicine.
Gistand chose law enforcement and retired in 2014 after 31 years between two constables offices.
“I was very loyal to my Shepherd because he helped me get started on what I really wanted in life so that I could raise my family,” said Gistand, who considered Johnson a father figure even though they were only a few years apart in age.
He committed himself to serve as Johnson’s armor bearer.
“I’m going to really miss him. He treated me like a son,” Gistand said. “I was obligated to be with him wherever he was. I felt like I owed him something because he helped me get where I got to be in life.”
Pastor Murray G. Martin was first mentored by Johnson as a preteen when his mother moved to Houston and united with Holman Street. After accepting a call to ministry at age 20, Martin was a staff member at the church and worked as Johnson’s assistant for several years.
“He taught me about the business side of ministry. I had a chance to see the Monday through Saturday behind-the-scenes of making Sunday go, but also the multi-factored aspects of taking care of the flock and servicing the community,” said Martin who leads Mother Zion Baptist Church in Bay City, Texas. “I had a chance to shadow him through many business endeavors and nonprofit meetings. He just showed me the many sides of ministry—serving mankind. Even though people pulled at him for his time and attention, he always made time for his children. He loved his children. He always prioritized and highlighted his wife and his family and that was a great model.”
Community Builder and Renaissance Man
Johnson completed community projects totaling more than $7.5 million. He was appointed to statewide boards by several Texas governors including the Texas Health and Human Services Commission Council. He has served on community boards for local organizations including the Houston Texans YMCA, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Rebuild Together Houston and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.
He founded the South East Houston Community Development Corporation, Inc. (SEHCDC) to provide affordable housing, workforce opportunities and other basic needs. In 1998, the SEHCDC opened East Side Village University, a community learning center offering adult education and job skills training for youth, adults and those returning from incarceration.
“He always wanted to do something for the community — for those who are downtrodden and need help. He started a computer learning center out of the CDC. He knew that technology was where the world was going and he wanted to prepare the membership for that,” Weeks said. “I’ll never forget how he preached a sermon about a vision of kids not having books in their backpacks but having computers in their backpacks. This was long before computers were big in schools. He started up a community room where they taught computers. That’s how East Side Village came to be in 1993. He knew what the people needed.”
Weeks, who is director of the Austin Public Library, remains a member of Holman Street despite working in the state capital. He described Johnson’s unflinching focus on property ownership as the conduit to amassing wealth and assuming control over the community’s future.
“Self-reliance is what he wanted. That’s why he built houses and tore down crack houses and wanted people to start their own businesses. He touted financial literacy and how to save. He taught our church and the community. He wanted to put a medical clinic on the property that we own right next door to us. That’s in the works and we are going to help his vision to come through,” he said. “When he bought that property along with the deacons, that property was worth nothing. Now, anything along Scott Street is worth millions. We are just trying to do what our foreparents did: They took pennies and bought land. He was trying to help young people understand not to let someone take mama’s property for taxes. That takes vision and being patient and not selling everything when someone comes along and offers you a nickel for it.”
The community gathered in January 2018 to celebrate Johnson’s 40th Pastoral Anniversary during a formal gala at the Ballroom at Bayou Place attended by his family, church members and friends including former Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The event was co-hosted by Martin and Melinda Spaulding, vice president of advancement at Texas Southern University and executive director of the TSU Foundation, where Johnson served as a Board Trustee.
“He was not a man to toot his own horn,” Martin said. “For him to sit down and smell the roses and for people to come from all over to tell him ‘thank you’ for his impact was amazing. I’m sure glad that we had a chance to celebrate him.”
He added that Johnson was a “renaissance man” who also enjoyed having fun.
“Yes, he was serious. He was about business. He was about God’s work and he could be stern at times, but in his down moments, he loved to chill,” Martin said. “He was a lover of culture, a lover of the arts, a lover of music.”
The church plans to mourn for 30 days before moving forward, Deacon Roy Phillips said.
“Everyone at Holman Street loved the Shepherd and the leadership he gave us and the community throughout the years,” he said. “I will miss his preaching and his teaching. We plan to continue to pray for guidance though the leadership of the deacons.”
A proud Life Member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., Johnson also was a Class XI fellow of the American Leadership Forum.
He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Mrs. Zelda G. Johnson, as well as three children — Manson, Matthew and Michelle — and seven grandchildren.
Arrangements are pending.