I have always found the ocean to be powerfully affecting. Standing on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico and gazing out toward the horizon, it seems impossible not to be impressed by the enormity of the universe and one’s own smallness before it.
There’s something about that experience that strips us down to our most basic, our most elemental. And so it seems strange to think there once was a time when, even here, Americans weren’t viewed as equal.
In the 1950s, the South was still plunged in the depths of Jim Crow. In segregated Pensacola, black Americans weren’t permitted to use the same street cars, sit at the same lunch counters or even swim at the same beaches as their white neighbors.
At the same time that black Americans were being discriminated against at home, many were fighting for those same neighbors’ freedom abroad.
Rosamond Johnson was one of these heroes. Johnson was only 15 when he volunteered to fight in the Korean War.
Two years later, on July 26, 1950, he was killed in combat while trying to drag a fellow soldier to safety. Johnson, not yet 18, had already saved the lives of two fellow soldiers. He was the first Escambia County resident — black or white — to die in the conflict.
Johnson was awarded a Purple Heart for his sacrifice, and the Escambia County Board of Commissioners named a stretch of coastline on Perdido Key in his honor. Still, it would be several years before Jim Crow was fully dismantled and Johnson’s family was free to patronize whatever beach they chose.
A monument to the young hero was erected on the beach in 1996, and Escambia County residents honor his memory each May 2 on Rosamond Johnson Beach Day.
It doesn’t take a special observance or a metal plaque to see Johnson’s legacy, though. Visit his namesake beach on any given day during the summer, and you’ll see people of all races enjoying the same stretch of sand — equally small before the enormity of the Gulf of Mexico — just as it should be.