Hailing from a family of high achievers, Juanita Hanger Johnson made her own legacy mark. Her mother, Ione Hanger, was an Omaha Public Schools teacher, a missionary and a community volunteer. Her father, Saybert Hanger, was among the area’s first Black attorneys, federal meat inspectors and the Nebraska Urban League’s first Black president.
A “cradle-to-the-grave Episcopalian,” Juanita grew up in St. Philip Church. In 1986, she helped broker the merger of all-Black St. Philip with all-white St. John to form Church of the Resurrection (COR)
In 2004, she was ordained the first Black deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska. Bishop Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker said: “As an educator and advocate for civil rights, it was her passion and purpose to serve those on the margins, and to lead her fellow Episcopalians in ministries of justice that sewed healing and hope.”
Past COR rector Rev. Jason Emerson called her a “trailblazer” who let her actions do the talking, but her preaching once “blew the doors off the joint.”
An Omaha Central High School graduate, Juanita earned a bachelor’s degree at Fisk University and a physical therapy degree at Cleveland Clinic. She later earned a master’s at Creighton. She also completed studies at Drake University and then-Omaha University,
She married Korean War veteran George Warren Johnson, a Marshalltown, Iowa, native, in 1958. He was a career educator. Juanita went from being a physical therapist to an Omaha Public Schools math teacher and guidance counselor. She ended her career at Omaha North High School in 1997.
The Johnsons encountered redlining barriers. In 1969, they built a home in the metro’s first mixed-race subdivision, New Horizons. She was active in Alpha Kappa Alpha and The Links. Following her OPS retirement, she was a YWCA domestic violence hotline counselor.
Emerson said Juanita was “an icon” who lived her faith. “By seeing us truly and deeply she called us into a deeper relationship with God and to greater service of our neighbors.” Juanita was preceded in death by her husband and by her daughter, Joslen Johnson Shaw. She’s survived by her son Marty Johnson (Laura), grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
— By Leo Adam Biga