Essie Mae Stewart Johnson was born January 9, 1952 in Savannah, Georgia to Deacon Frank and Mrs. Marion Stewart. The third of four children, she received Christ at an early age and was baptized at Tremont Temple Baptist Church under the tutelage of Reverend J.M. Benton.
Essie exhibited a zeal for learning and a zest for life that resonated with everyone whose life she became touched. She attended the schools of Chatham County and in 1969, graduated from Alfred Ely Beach High School, where she was a member of the renowned Marching Bulldogs Band as a majorette and she served as Editor In Chief of the school’s newspaper, The Beach Beacon. Inspired by her maternal grandmother, who was an educator as well, her pursuit to educate and elevate began at Savannah State College. As a freshman in 1970, she quickly made her mark to excel. Essie established herself as an astute scholar and rose among the ranks of her upper classmen peers as the Feature Editor of the Tiger’s Roar, the official student publication. She later became Editor In Chief during her senior year, a feat she accomplished in three years. Her college experience was enhanced by being initiated as a member of the Gamma Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated where she subsequently continued a lifelong commitment to sisterhood and community service as member of the Gamma Sigma Omega Graduate Chapter of the sorority.
Life beyond the “college by the sea” actualized and the challenges that came with being young, gifted and black in rural Georgia emerged and Essie rose to the challenge. She began her extraordinary education career in Swainsboro, Georgia. She excelled in spite of the inference that her HBCU affiliation rendered her inferior. Undaunted, Essie enrolled in Georgia Southern College and earned her Master of Education Degree in 1975 and subsequently her Education Specialist Degree in 1989.
In 1977, she returned to her beloved Alfred Ely Beach High School and began a twenty five year tenure at her esteemed alma mater. It is an understatement to say the impression “EJ”, as she became affectionately known, left upon the young lives she touched at the halls of 3001 Hopkins Street. Walking and teaching in the halls, Essie was not only an English teacher, but a mother, mentor and friend. She became the advisor of the Pep Squad, re-ignited the student newspaper, the Beach Beacon, instrumental in the creation of the Military Magnet Program, but became well known as the charismatic advisor of Beach High’s Drill Team, the Marching Quintessence. Essie and her “sister friend”, Dr. Patricia Harris, who served as the school’s Varsity Cheerleading Squad advisor, were prominent figures at any Beach High game, not only keeping a watchful eye, but instilling principles of womanhood and overcoming obstacles with class, grace and dignity in all of the young ladies they encountered. Additionally, Johnson was also known as a staunch advocate for public schools as she rose to yet another challenge. In 1988, she became the President of the Chatham Association of Educators. Essie believed in every child as a learner and courageously fought to ensure that quality teaching was at the forefront of a very public, very demanding and increasingly politicized profession. She was elected as a National Education Association Director from the State of Georgia in 1992 and in 1998, she became President of the Georgia Association of Educators.
While she elevated among her professional peers, representing them and thousands of public school students across the state and still teaching at Beach High, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness known as Scleroderma. While this might have been considered a setback, the faith and fire that was a part of Essie Stewart Johnson, did not accept this as the end. She continued to work and advocate for quality education.
Under the leadership of Pastor Ricky Bready, she answered her call to minister the Gospel. Essie’s role expanded as she became Superintendent of Christian Education. She was instrumental in reviving the Women’s Home Mission and was a cornerstone of the Morning Prayer line at Tremont Temple Baptist Church. Recently, she became a member of the Morning Glory Prayer Family, an intercessory ministry of Pastor Kim S. White of Bloomfield Baptist Church of Wilson, Virginia.
Every morning at 5:15 a.m., she rose with the same zeal, greeting the callers in her own way, “Good Morning Prayer Warriors!” She showed the love of God in her the way she consistently prayed for others in the midst of her own infirmities.
Without a doubt, we will miss “Our Essie”. She is preceded in death by her father Frank and brother Carl Stewart and her older sister, Barbara.
She is survived by her sons, Calvin F. (Kelly) Oxendine, III of Ellenwood, Georgia and Carlos S. (Portia) Johnson of Savannah, Georgia; her mother, Marion W. Stewart of Savannah, Georgia; her sister and caregiver, Gladys A. Stewart of Savannah, Georgia. Two nieces, Renee’ Stewart Baucum of Prince George, Virginia and Yolanda (Paul) Coaxum of Savannah, Georgia. Three grandchildren, Keslyn Oxendine and Calvin F. Oxendine, IV of Ellenwood, Georgia and Suri Johnson of Savannah, Georgia. A grandniece, Chardonnay L. (Larawl) Williams of St. Mary’s, Georgia, two grandnephews, Dwayne M. Baucum of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and Dante’ J. A.R. Baucum of Prince George, Virginia and a great-grandnephew, Jarred E. Zeigler, II of St. Mary’s, Georgia ; a special cousin (sister), Mrs. Shirley Mitchell of Savannah, Georgia; and a host of cousins, relatives and other friends. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge her sister friends that she called on a regular basis: Mrs. Ivy Richardson, Ms. Geraldine Baker, Mrs. Annette Mitchell (cousin) and Mrs. Ola Lewis. Also, her professional mentor, brother and friend, Mr. Joe Bell and Mrs. Frettie Zeigler of the Chatham Association of Educators.