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For a moment, son of slain woman considers moving back to Chicago

Thursday, July 14, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by William Lee





It might have been the smiling faces of his family members, the reflective shine of the TV cameras or the kind words from elected officials calling him a role model that had South Side native Darius Johnson reconsidering whether he would return to his hometown to help steer more young people toward a college education.

Months after speaking with the Tribune about his intentions to move outside of Chicago permanently amid daily reports of crime and violence in and around his South Side neighborhood, Johnson said he is rethinking his path after the Cook County Board honored him Wednesday for his academic success.

Johnson, 22, received two standing ovations from a large audience during Wednesday's board meeting, where commissioners lavished praise on the King College Prep graduate for his perseverance over the early violence that could have derailed his future.

While completing his English degree atMorehouse College, Johnson interned at CNN; both are in Atlanta. He limited visits home, but he's in Chicago for the summer, between college stints. Later this month, he leaves Chicago for New York City'sColumbia Universityand its prestigious journalism graduate program, where he will be one of six African-Americans and the only black man.

Johnson was featured in aMarch Tribune storyhighlighting how crime and dwindling job prospects had many African-Americans, from college grads to baby boomers, fleeing the city. The article preceded the release of U.S. Census data confirming a population loss in Chicago, largely attributed to a decline in the black population.

"Now with this resolution I feel like I have to come back," he said after Wednesday's meeting, referring to the county board's resolution honoring him. "And that doesn't mean I have to come back to live, or come back to stay, but I have to at least come back to get a few more people from my community, or from this city to attend college and then to proceed into grad school just so that they can achieve all of their hopes and dreams the same way that I've done."

Johnson was only 5 weeks old when his 21-year-old mother, Sonja, was fatally struck by a stray bullet outside the family home in the Burnside neighborhood. Since then, his grandparents and extended family helped raise him, keeping his focus on education while sheltering him from the violence in the community.

Surrounded by a dozen relatives, including his grandparents, Hattie and McKinley, Johnson was embraced by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and received a kiss on the cheek from CommissionerDeborah Sims.

"Young man, I am so proud of you," Sims said.

CommissionerStanley Moore, who sponsored the resolution, said, "I understand that he has had some very serious obstacles that he's had to overcome in his personal life, but through it all he has survived and he has taken big strides to achieve big dreams."

Commissioner Richard Boykin said: "Against all odds you've been able to accomplish some tremendous things and you've never given up on hope. That's what we need most of all in our communities — hope."

Johnson, who hopes to continue working with CNN, said he was overwhelmed by the attention.

"It felt amazing. It also felt surreal. It's still unbelievable what just happened. It's just a lot to take in, but I know that my work isn't done," he said.

Some of the unfinished work includes finding scholarship cash to help finance the one-year, $100,000 master's program.

Johnson expects some belt-tightening now that his grandmother, a longtime social worker with an agency affiliated with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, recently had her position phased out, a casualty of the state budget impasse in Springfield.

"Right now I have enough to go ahead and go for my first semester so I'm just hoping that the money comes in order for me to finish my entire year," Johnson said.

But the financial hardship couldn't wipe the smile from the face of Hattie Johnson, who described raising her grandson as tough but rewarding.

"It was hard but we made it. I did what I could do, all I could do for him," Hattie Johnson said. "I didn't have a son, but I gained one. I lost a daughter and gained a son."

Twitter @MidNoirCowboy

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