Sixty-five years ago, Carol Johnson’s beloved sister disappeared
Once again, Carol Johnson was searching. Somewhere in the grassy hillside before her lay the focus of a lifetime of grief and guilt. She reached into her purse for a tissue, then walked forward, looking for landmarks. Years had passed since her last visit.
With help she found the spot, but then she wasn’t sure. Every few minutes the sun came from behind gathering clouds and threw heat in her face. Not yet 10 o’clock and already the temperature was above 80.
“Mind if I sit down?” Carol asked.
And so she rested her small, 74-year-old body among unmarked graves in a burial ground that shelters many who lived and died in a neighborhood that no longer exists.
Getting transportation from her Swissvale home to Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara Township is difficult for Carol. When she heard a Post-Gazette journalist would be traveling there to research this story, she asked, “Can I go?”
Now, tiny raindrops pelted her skin. “It feels good,” she said.
Somewhere in the earth below rested the remains of the one whose absence has caused her so much pain. Carol clutched a moist tissue and thought back to a cool summer night 65 years ago and the brutal event that warped her life.
On that Thursday, July 9, 1953, Carol’s mother Pearl Johnson finished her work as a domestic and journeyed, weary and spent, to her home on a brick-paved alley so buckled by age and neglect that its contours resembled a roiling sea.
This was Sachem Way in the doomed Lower Hill District. Mrs. Johnson walked past aging brick homes devoid of ornamentation, rickety fences built of scrap lumber, a lot filled with dead trucks. An abandoned couch with exposed springs squatted near the alley’s northern end.
Mrs. Johnson climbed the steps of a three-story brick building made somewhat cheerful by flowers sprouting from a window box. Inside a small apartment on the second floor, her four daughters were waiting.
The two youngest — Carol, then age 9, and Julia Mae, 10 — were best friends and rarely separated. They looked like twins, often dressing alike. Walking to school or to the store, the two held hands. They asked their mother if they could go outside and play. It was around 8 p.m., but on these long summer days, brightness lingered until close to 9. Their mother said yes.
She then rested in a rocking chair and listened to a radio program. She could hear Carol and Julia Mae playing on that discarded sofa just across the street. At some point, Mrs. Johnson dispatched her oldest daughter Joyce, 15, to a confectionery on Epiphany Street. Another daughter, 12-year-old Glenora, felt ill and stayed at home. Her husband, Moses Mitchell, was at a movie theater.
Then Mrs. Johnson dozed.
She awoke shortly before 11 and found three of her daughters at home. Where was Joyce? she wondered. Mrs. Johnson figured she was still at the confectionery, a popular place that everyone called “Mr. Babe’s,” though the sign in the window read Corner Confectionary. Mr. Babe’s had a soda fountain and a jukebox. Teens liked to hang out there.
Julia Mae played jacks on the apartment floor. Mrs. Johnson interrupted the game and sent her to the confectionery to tell Joyce to come home. Normally, the duty of summoning Joyce would have fallen to Glenora, but she still wasn’t feeling well.
To get to the store, visible from the apartment, Julia Mae had only to walk past a vacant lot, cross Hazel and Epiphany streets and a parklet.
Fifteen minutes later, Julia Mae had yet to return, so Mrs. Johnson sent Carol to the store to tell both Joyce and Julia Mae it was time to come home. Carol ran through the dimly lighted parklet, found Joyce at Mr. Babe’s, and a short time later the two arrived back at the Sachem Way apartment.
“Momma, where’s Julia Mae?” asked Carol.
Alarmed, Mrs. Johnson, Carol and Joyce walked outside and began searching for Julia Mae. They checked Mr. Babe’s. None of the clerks had seen her. Apparently she’d never arrived there to get her sisters. The search continued, to other stores, friends’ houses, the parklet and a nearby playground. No luck.
Soon several friends joined the hunt. Joyce and Carol walked the length of Sachem Way, dark and shadowy under the illumination of a single streetlight, and called out, “Julia Mae! Julia Mae!” Joyce held her younger sister’s hand so tightly that it hurt.
Midnight passed. At 12:40 a.m., Mrs. Johnson met her husband a block away from home and told him Julia Mae was missing.
The two returned home. “My husband called the Missing Person’s Bureau and then told me not to worry, that everything would be alright in the morning,” Mrs. Johnson later told the Pittsburgh Courier, the legendary black newspaper based in the Hill. Mrs. Johnson returned to her rocking chair and worried while her husband went to bed.
Outside, Joyce and Carol and their friends continued the search, looking in the small alleys and narrow dirt paths that were shortcuts connecting Sachem Way’s homes, buildings and lots with other nearby streets.
Several times, Joyce and Carol passed the discarded couch the two younger sisters had played on hours earlier.
But as they stood near the couch again shortly after 1 a.m., Joyce said to Carol, “I heard something.” The decades-old memory still brings tears to Carol’s eyes. “We went to the couch and Jules was right there. I think she was still alive then.”
Julia Mae lay motionless with her arms crossed over her chest, with her back to Sachem Way. Joyce tried unsuccessfully to wake her, then picked up her younger sister and cradled her in her arms.
Joyce called out for her mother, still in the apartment. Mrs. Johnson came to the window, looked down and saw Joyce holding a limp Julia Mae and screamed. Frantic, she ran downstairs, missing steps and nearly falling.
In the gloom of Sachem Way, Carol asked, “Mommy, what’s wrong with Julia Mae?” Mrs. Johnson held Julia Mae’s body and felt its coldness. “I just stood there and hollered and screamed as my husband took her away from me,” she said.
The neighborhood awakened. Two men who lived nearby put Julia Mae into an automobile and drove her to Mercy Hospital’s emergency room. She was pronounced dead on arrival, according to a police report. “The body indicated she may have met with foul play,” the report noted.
A hand-written autopsy report states Julia Mae wore a white dress with red plaid trim and brown suede slippers when she died. She was 4 foot, 4 inches tall and weighed 55-60 pounds. Cause of death was “rape and asphyxiation due to strangulation.”
Julia Mae’s rape and murder was a mystery that for weeks haunted the Lower Hill District and dominated the front page of the Courier. The newspaper published a picture of Julia Mae and several photographs of the crime scene, described in detail events of July 9 and 10 and the subsequent investigation, wrote about the funeral and explored various clues and theories about the crime. Later, the Courier chided police for making little progress and accused detectives of bungling the case.
Throughout the rest of the city, however, the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl less than half a mile from the Allegheny County Courthouse received little more than a shrug. Julia Mae was an African American child living in a low-income neighborhood invisible to most Pittsburghers. A check of the city’s three daily newspapers — the Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Press and the Sun-Telegraph — revealed short news items describing the murder on July 10 and brief follow-up stories on the arrest and release of a man authorities later decided had nothing to do with the crime. Julia Mae’s story then vanished from the newspapers’ pages until a coroner’s inquest on Aug. 20, after which it again withered away to nothing.
The indifference to Julia Mae’s murder was but one marker of the Lower Hill’s powerlessness. Another would appear a few years later, when bulldozers and wrecking balls arrived to level the homes along Sachem Way and Mr. Babe’s store and the rest of the Lower Hill’s schools, churches, businesses and clubs. Residents, including the Johnsons, scattered while the city built a massive steel-domed entertainment facility called the Civic Arena.
Beginning Saturday, July 11, mourners filed through West Funeral Parlor on Centre Avenue to view Julia Mae’s body, clothed in a baby pink frock and laid out in a white casket surrounded by floral bouquets.
Carol wanted to see her sister. “Don’t go over there, baby, don’t go over there,” a female usher warned. Carol wondered, “Why?” She didn’t understand death, a topic her family never discussed. She walked up to the casket, reached in and shook her sister in an attempt to wake her.
Thomas J. West estimated that 6,000 people passed through the funeral home to pay their respects. Many attempted to touch the child. West placed a shroud over Julia Mae body’s and posted a sign reading, “Hands off.”
Monday morning arrived and still Carol had so many questions. She quizzed Courier reporters transporting the Johnson family to homicide headquarters Downtown for a meeting. During the trip, the Courier reported, Carol sang “April in Portugal,” a hit on the radio at the time. She talked about school and asked, “What did they do to my sister?” and “Where is my sister going?” and “Was it a white man or a colored man who killed my sister?”
The finality of the her sister’s death struck home at 1 p.m. Wednesday, during funeral services at the West Funeral Parlor, packed with more than 500 people. (A speaker system piped the service to hundreds more gathered on streets outside.) During the opening prayer, Carol was “seized with feelings of grief,” reported the Courier. “First aid had to be administered to her.”
At service’s end, shock and sadness rendered Carol unable to walk. A male attendant carried her from the funeral home.
As weeks passed, writers at the Courier grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in the investigation and noted the absence of stories in the local press.
When a 12-year-old white girl named Carole Kensinger had been killed under similar circumstances in the mixed-race neighborhood of Homewood in 1948, the Courier noted, daily newspapers published stories on the death for more than six weeks and Pittsburgh’s superintendent of police personally took over the investigation.
The Courier charged police with lethargy and bungling in the Julia Mae Johnson case. Detectives failed to secure evidence at the scene of the murder — at the request of Mrs. Johnson, a neighbor on Friday morning, July 10, burned the couch on which the body was found. Police discovered markings that “may have indicated a body had been dragged through a lot at the murder scene or which may have been footprints of the killer” but then delayed taking pictures. The next day, a neighbor cleaned the lot, destroying possible evidence.
“Apparently equal protection under the law doesn’t apply when you are a Negro child who lives and dies in the slums on Sachem Alley,” read the Courier.
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When the Civic Arena dome rose above the space where her sister was killed, Carol wept. Over the years, however, Carol would visit the arena, and it became a place where she could go to feel close to Julia Mae. When the arena was demolished and converted to a parking lot, she wept again.
Closure for Carol remains elusive. Her sister’s killer has no name, no face. “I’ve thought about nothing but this all my life,” she says. “Not knowing all these years. It could be somebody that’s laughing or smiling in my face. That’s why I avoided people. I didn’t trust people. I lived with that all my life … Even people I’d meet on the street — males. I was always afraid, wondering, ‘Am I talking to the one who killed my sister?’”
She’s chilled at the thought that the killer may have been watching as she and Joyce and their friends searched the alley and called out Julia Mae’s name. Perhaps he was even among them. How else do you explain the sudden appearance of the body on the couch? Carol is convinced the killer was nearby and waited for a moment when he could place the body on the couch unnoticed. Joyce and Carol often discussed this in the years and decades after the murder.
And then there’s the guilt. Carol wonders if the killer had been stalking Julia Mae, waiting for a moment when she was alone and vulnerable. Perhaps if Carol had gone with her sister to Mr. Babe’s, Julia Mae would still be alive. They would have grown up together, become nurses like they’d dreamed. Raised families together. And now, instead of dapping her tears in a cemetery, Carol would be sitting in the shade with Julia Mae, the two of them drinking iced tea and talking about their grandchildren.