Debra Johnson

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — The extreme closeness between longtime friends was very much in evidence last Sunday, as the mother and closest companions of Debra Porter Johnson remembered her. Her mother and friends maintained Johnson was the sweetest, most loving and happy-go-lucky daughter, and without question the leader of the group.

Johnson, 64, lived near the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning where, law enforcement officials said, she was murdered on the morning of Aug. 8. Born Dec. 10, 1954 at Mt. Pleasant, she will be laid to rest in the Faith Garden of Greenwood Cemetery North, 1248 Dickerson Road, Goodlettsville.

Annie Porter discussed a reversal of roles from a recent situation involving her daughter. Recently Debra took her mother to get glasses. Her mom wore them saying “ I should have been spoiling her, but most of the time, she’d spoil me. I’m looking for the cheapest kind. I should have gone for a higher kind. When we went to check out, she said “That’s all right Momma, I’ll pay for them. I didn’t question her. I said, “Thank you, baby, and gave her a big kiss”

Last Sunday Annie Porter also expressed mixed feelings about the fact her daughter’s killer had been caught. “My happy tears were that they found the inmate that killed her, and I was crying because, although they found him, my daughter is gone.” In discussing 44-year-old Curtis Ray Watson, who’s charged with murder, Porter said he “should pay for his crime.” When asked in what manner, Porter said “How? I won’t say. Some people pray for a criminal’s soul. Most likely I won’t get to that. A change has to come in me before I can. God will have to put that on my heart.”

She discussed how much her daughter was like her deceased husband, who passed nearly 18 years ago, and was the first Black IRS agent. Debra “was so much like her daddy,” Annie remembered. “Her smile and work ethic were like his. She was dedicated to her job. He was too.” Debra Johnson’s accomplishments as the first Black woman warden at Turney Center were also recalled by family and friends.

During her tenure as warden, Debra Johnson led a tour of the Tennessee Women’s Prison for her Mother’s group The Red Hats. She was scheduled to retire in December, and planned to spend more time with longtime friends Sandra Glenn Burnett, LaRaine Robinson Taylor, and Gwen Head Pettiford. They remembered happy times, and were so close they often finished each other’s sentences when they weren’t interrupting each other. The four grew up in Haynes Manor, East of Whites Creek Pike, and began first grade together.

“Debra kept us together,” Gwen said. “She was that person who – if we were mad because “You wore my top and didn’t ask me – brought us back together. Sandra lived across the street from the Porters. “We did everything together, the same kinds of jobs and were in the marching band. Debra was one of the color guards who twirled the gun for Maplewood High School’s Marching Panthers. The friends graduated from Tennessee State University May 7, 1977. Gwen was in church when Watson’s capture was reported “My church had just prayed in a unity circle for Debra and his capture,” she added. “Then there were a lot of texts. We heard all this buzzing, and people started screaming.” 

LaRaine lived down the street from the Porters. Gwen was two streets over. “One evening a neighborhood girl had a party,”  LaRaine said. “My father came up … and saw all the people in the street. He wanted to come get me, and Debra said, “LaRaine, your daddy!’” That would be embarrassing, but, “She was doing that to keep him from coming in to get me out of the party … It was a funny thing, but it wasn’t funny then.”

Debra, Gwen and Sandra moved to California. Debra had married Stan “The Man” Johnson, who played football at TSU in the late 1970s. He was drafted by the L.A. Rams and then played for the Kansas City Chiefs. Debra and Stan separated, but remained in touch.

Debra Johnson was baptized when she was six in Chicago at Greater Bethel Baptist Church. She sang in the choir both in Chicago and at Fifteenth Baptist Church. 

Her funeral is Friday in The Temple Church, 3810 Kings Lane, preceded by visitation at 11 a.m. The Rev. Dr. David Latimore is pastor of Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, 1203 9th Avenue North, Debra’s home church, where visitation was 3-7 p.m. Thursday.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...