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Before she was Evelyn Johnson, she was Evelyn Smith from right outside Brooklyn, New York. While her parents struggled to find jobs as Trinidadian immigrants, Evelyn’s older sister, Francis, took care of her. They had a lively childhood, living in New York. The summers were their favorite, splashing in broken fire hydrants and braiding each others’ hair on their front steps. However, when Evelyn was 14, a fire burned their apartment to ashes, leaving her and her family stranded. Looking for a fresh start, they moved to Halifax, North Carolina, with some distant cousins. Despite severe racial tensions, her family found comfort in the simple southern life, finding a greater and tighter community. Here is where Evelyn met Sam.
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Evelyn Smith, Halifax County, 1952

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Brooklyn, 1942, LIFE

Halifax, North Carolina, was all William Sam Johnson knew. Growing up, he hung out with his cousins and siblings– working on his family’s farm and fixing engines. On top of that, he was a newsboy, riding his dingy bike and throwing newspapers onto people’s front porches. On Sundays, Sam cooked meals for church lunches, ensuring everyone went home with a filled plate of food. Everyone loved Sam. It was kind of hard not to.
No one knows how they met–somewhere and sometime in high school. Whenever he was asked, Sam always said, “I just remember wanting to take her to prom.” And he did, though it took a little convincing. Evelyn (or Evie, as he called her) was stubborn and ambitious. She wanted to graduate high school without distractions, but it was hard when Sam was so charming. In the end, she agreed to be his prom date. From then on, it was always Evie and Sam. They were two young kids in love.
Where there was Sam, there was Evelyn, and vice versa. They loved each other. They cared for each other. And they were there for each other. However, hardship was not foreign to the couple. In their junior year, Sam’s dad passed, causing Sam to drop out of high school and take care of the farm. Even if he wasn’t going to receive his diploma, Evelyn ensured he would still have an education. After school, on the way to the farm, she would drag her math and reading books, showing him what she had learned for the day and passing on that knowledge.

For many Black Americans, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, gave them hope of a new day. For Evelyn and Sam, it supplied them with the faith they needed.

In 1960, they got married. Sam worked on the farm and in the back of a local restaurant, cooking. Evelyn was a lunch lady at the nearby middle and high school. On the side, she designed and created wedding dresses, selling them to a bridal shop in Roanoke Rapids.
Sam and Evelyn were huge parts of their community. As Black people in poor and rural North Carolina during the 50s and 60s, they felt they had a responsibility to take care of their people. Whether it was advocating for the right to vote or ensuring the community was fed, Sam and Evelyn were prominent members of Halifax.
In their mid-to-late twenties, they had three kids, each two years apart--Christopher (Chris), Eugenia (Genia), and William (Craig). Although they didn’t have much, they did their best with what they had, teaching their kids to be useful life skills and instilling in them the importance of love. While Genia picked up sewing from her mother, Craig and Chris enjoyed cooking and carpentry like their dad.
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Halifax County, NC, 1983. Chris, Craig, + Genia.

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Evelyn and Sam were the biggest supporters of their kids, encouraging Genia to pursue nursing, supporting Chris in the military, and rooting for Craig to become a state trooper. Unfortunately, Sam did not see his kids fulfill all their dreams, as he passed away in ‘92. Evelyn and Sam had 40 beautiful years together.

At Last was played at their wedding.

Evelyn continued to be there for her community, working in the church. She continued to support her kids and her grandchildren. Wherever she went, she shared the love Sam once shared with her. And in 2006, she was reunited with her love.
Remembering their parents and healing together, Genia, Chris, and Craig strived to spread the joy, love, and memories Evelyn and Sam created. They kept their memory alive, telling their kids and grandkids about the two wonderful people that got us all here. There is a little Sam and Evelyn in all of us. And it’s crazy how all it began when Evie met Sam.
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Evelyn and Sam’s grandkids. From the left, Deja, Alexis, Lauren, and Chris II.

A Tribute to Evelyn and Sam, by William Johnson. Produced by Nyah Johnson