DALLAS — In the late 1940s, Thomas Johnson had a choice to make. After a stint in the military, he could either pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, an impossible aspiration for a Black man in Texas at the time, or return to his beloved family in Crockett, a town dripping with history surrounded by the pecan and pine trees of deep East Texas, where thousands were once enslaved on cotton plantations.
While Crockett’s Black residents largely escaped the worst of the Jim Crow era’s reign of terror, Johnson was raised in a divided town. Black people lived west of Fourth Street, White people east, and what one could achieve in life was defined by that color line, even for a proud military veteran like Johnson.
He had been a bright student. In 1933, Johnson graduated from high school at 15. By 19, he had a degree from Wiley College, a private historically Black college in nearby Marshall, Tex. African Americans were barred from attending any of the state’s medical schools, however, the doctrine of “separate, but equal” meant the state had to offer Black students something. So the state made Johnson a deal: It would pay for him to go to medical school as long as it wasn’t in Texas. And with that offer in hand, Johnson joined millions of African Americans, who together formed the Great Migration, leaving the South looking for opportunities and hope not afforded to them under Jim Crow.