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James Johnson, Jr.

Civil engineer and education administrator James H. Johnson, Jr. was born on May 27, 1947 to parents, James and Arline in Annapolis, Maryland. He earned his B.S. degree in civil engineering from Howard University. He then attended the University of Illinois, where he received his M.S. degree in sanitary engineering in 1970. Johnson worked as a consultant and as an engineer at Engineering Science before continuing his education at the University of Delaware. He received his Ph.D. degree in civil and environmental engineering in 1982.

Following the completion of his graduate studies, Johnson was offered a position on the faculty of his alma mater, Howard University. Johnson’s research focused on the treatment of hazardous compounds, contaminated soil including explosive waste, and environmental policy. He became chair of the Howard University Department of Civil Engineering in 1982. From 1989 until 2002, Johnson served as associate director of the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic Hazardous Substance Research Center. In 1996, he was appointed dean of Howard University’s College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences and in 2005 he was named the Samuel P. Massie Professor of Civil Engineering. Four years later, Johnson became professor emeritus of civil engineering at Howard University. In 2010, he was appointed chair of the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. Johnson was the first African American to chair this independent committee for the Agency. He has also served as chair of the U.S. EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. In 2012, Johnson was appointed director of EPA's National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) within the Office of Research and Development. Johnson has co-edited two books, contributed to three more, and he has published over 60 academic papers.

Johnson is a diplomate of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and in 2005, he received the National Society of Black Engineers Lifetime Achievement Award in Academia. He has also been recognized with the 2008 Water Environment Federation Gordon Maskew Fair Distinguished Educator Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award by National Society of Black Engineers (DC Chapter) in 2009. He is a member of the Water Environment Federation, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Society for Engineering Education, the Association of Environmental Engineers and Science Professors and the American Academy of Environmental Engineers.

James H. Johnson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 15, 2012.

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Middle Name

"Jim" H.


University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

University of Delaware

Howard University

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Favorite Vacation Destination

Beaches, Golfing

Favorite Quote

To him or her that is given much, much is expected.

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Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

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Short Description

Civil engineer and education administrator James Johnson, Jr. (1947 - ) is the former dean of Howard University’s College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences, and the first African American chair of the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT).


United States Environmental Protection Agency

Howard University

Engineering Science, Inc. (Parsons)

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James Johnson's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James Johnson lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James Johnson talks about his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James Johnson talks about the history of Annapolis, Maryland</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James Johnson talks about his family's history in Annapolis, Maryland</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James Johnson talks about his mother's growing up</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James Johnson talks about his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James Johnson talks about his hometown of Annapolis, Maryland</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James Johnson talks about his early education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James Johnson talks about his extracurricular activities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James Johnson talks about how his interest in civil engineering developed</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James Johnson talks about Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination and the Civil Rights Movement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James Johnson talks about his experience at Bates High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - James Johnson recalls President Lyndon B. Johnson's visit to Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - James Johnson talks about civil engineering</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - James Johnson talks about his mentors at Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James Johnson talks about his studies at Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James Johnson talks about his decision to attend University of Illinois for graduate school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James Johnson talks about his experience working at Engineering Science and the 1972 Watergate Scandal</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James Johnson discusses his research on active carbon to dechlorinate water</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - James Johnson talks about his doctoral studies at University of Delaware while teaching at Howard</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - James Johnson discusses his dissertation on solid-liquid separation in water treatment</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - James Johnson talks about serving as chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - James Johnson reflects on his work at Howard University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James Johnson discusses his contributions as Dean of Howard University's School of Engineering</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James Johnson talks about Howard University School of Engineering's Leadership Institute</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James Johnson talks about receiving the Man of Courage Award</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James Johnson talks about treating water contaminated with radiological and hazardous waste</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James Johnson talks about his work as an Environmental Health and Safety Consultant</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James Johnson talks about his professional honors and awards</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - James Johnson describes his transition to Professor Emeritus and his research on producing biofuels</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - James Johnson reflects on his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - James Johnson talks about his family and their belief and pride in him</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - James Johnson talks about his brother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - James Johnson shares his thoughts about sustainability and climate change</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - James Johnson reflects on his career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - James Johnson describes how he would like to be remembered</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - James Johnson describes his photos</a>







James Johnson talks about his mentors at Howard University
James Johnson talks about Howard University School of Engineering's Leadership Institute
Okay. Okay. So who were some of your teachers and mentors at Howard [Howard University]?$$Well, I have to say I had a lot of--I had a lot of mentors. But let me talk about at least three of them. One was a guy by the name of Walter T. Daniels. He was--Dr. Daniels was a structural engineer, first African-American to get a Ph.D. He got it from Iowa State University. Dr. Daniels, when he was working on his Ph.D. and all through his schooling while he was--he went to Prairieview undergraduate, but when he went to graduate school, and he had laboratories, he had to do his labs by himself because there were segregated--it was a segregated--he basically was segregated. But he was able to do all that and do it well, and he understood the importance of education. And when we would complain about how hard it was on us at Howard, he would tell us what it was really like to be hard. So he was a role model because he had--he got his Ph.D., he was a scholar, he had a good understanding of all of the course material, and he also was a caring person, and he nurtured a lot of young people to go on to graduate school and do things. The second one was the person who got me into environmental engineering, and his name was Man Mohan Varma.$$How do you spell that? Now what is it?$$Man, M-A-N, M-O-H-A-N, and the last name is Varma, V-A-R-M-A. Dr. Varma was a (sic) environmental engineer, and he was the one that got me interested in environmental engineering and invited me to his laboratory to work when I was a junior; said, "Why don't you come down to my lab and work and I can you some of the things we do?" So he was--he had an influence on me in terms of going into environmental engineering which, at that time, was called sanitary engineering. And I worked in his lab. He also helped me to select a graduate school. And so, that was very good because he sent me to help me go to a school where he knew that it would be a caring and a welcoming environment. So, and I actually had a chance to come back, when I came back to Howard, to work with him for many years, and he still was very helpful mentoring me; made sure I did the right things, took the right professional--made right professional choices about memberships and professional societies; being active. He and I coauthored a couple of papers together and actually hosted a couple of conferences together. So he was very influential in my career in the environmental area. The third person was a guy by the name of Raymond Jones. Ray Jones was a Howard graduate who had gone to the University of Michigan and had gotten his master's degree in sanitary engineering, and came back to Howard to teach. What was unique about Ray was that he was also a practicing engineer, and I had times that I worked on a couple of projects with him and--but he also was a good mentor, because he had a nice balance about his life. He was one of the faculty, he did--he was a practitioner, so he brought that practice to the classroom so e could see really how we could take the information we were using, learning in the classroom, and how we could take and translate it into a project. So, Ray Jones was a person who helped me see the bigger picture about life, and I think that was a--he was--he also, I think, took a special interest in me because I had a chance to work with him too. Oh, and the interesting thing that--that was that I had--I had a chance to be on the faculty with all of them after leaving Howard and coming back to the faculty. So I had a chance to know them from two perspectives.$$Okay. As a student and a faculty member?$$As a student and a faculty member.$$Now, what other activities were you engaged in at Howard? Were you part of the--$$Oh, I was a studier.$$Okay.$$I just studied. (Again?) a continuation of what I did in high school, but studying in a different way. I actually, I really did study here. And I remember being in my first classes in math and science, and I was in there with students who had come from technical high schools, and so, they'd had one year of calculus already. So what they saw in calculus they already knew, and to me it was Greek. And so, it required me to really study and go back and brush up on my algebra and trigonometry, and learn those things and relearn those things as I was doing the calculus classes. So, I remember that it was at Howard that I had to have good study habits, and I didn't have time to do other things. And I actually had a detailed schedule of everything I did, and my time for relaxation was Friday evening and, also, it would be a little bit on Saturday evening. But all the other time, except for church time on Sunday, I was studying.$$That's a tremendous work ethic. I mean, who do you cite as a source of the inspiration for that? Or did you internally (unclear)$$No. It wasn't internally. But a couple of my buddies who were in the Boy Scouts with me, at least one of them that lived right around the corner from me, also was--went to Howard and he was in electrical engineering. But he stayed one year and actually flunked out. And I always knew that they were much smarter than I was because they were two years older. So there were new things I never knew. So my inspiration was that, our high school was a good high school, and I wasn't going to do what he did and I didn't care what price I had to pay, I was going to study enough so I could make it. (So that's what I did?)$So, I'm going to--I'll repeat a little bit of what I said for continuity. I think one of the things I'm very happy about that I did while I was dean is to try to find a way to follow-through on our--the mantra of the university. When President Swygert came in, the mantra became "Leadership for America and the Global Community." So we were able to find a partner in Black and Veatch that was interested in helping us to provide a leadership institute for our students. And this was a (sic) extracurricular activity for students. What we tried to do was to have a guest speaker to come on a Friday afternoon, have a lecture on leadership that'll be open to the university community, and then have that following Saturday, the following day, full of workshops on leaderships. And we were able to do that for 15 years. So, the--our partner, Black and Veatch, stuck with us for all 15 years, and they provided us with a small grant of about 25,000. But the important thing they did is, they gave us a lot of their people to help us to prepare the material. And so, they put a lot of time and effort in beyond the dollars and cents. So, highlights. So, we had guest speakers, like, to kick off, like Bill Gates. Bill Gates came to campus. He was on a tour, and he was trying to convince--on this tour, he was doing six schools a given week, and we got selected to be done (on it too?). We were selected for his visit on Friday afternoon, and so we scheduled--we scheduled our Leadership Institute to be that weekend and here's Bill Gates to kick it off. So our students got a chance to see Bill Gates. We also had a Four-Star General to come, General Lester Lyles. He actually came in the same year of 9-11. So that was kind of iffy as to whether he would be able he'd be able to come, but I should be able to tell you he came and he was well protected. The last institute we had, our plenary speaker was General Colin Powell. So he came and talked about leadership from his perspective, followed by a workshop. We also had the administrator of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, to come and talk. So we had a lot of good people who were in leadership positions to come and to talk to our students about leadership, and we followed up with students within our college with the workshops on Saturday. So I think that, to me that was a way that we bought into the vision for the university and the mantra, and we were able to carry through. And I felt as (though?) as that was a contribution that had an impact upon a lot of our students.$$Okay. So did that start in '95 (1995) and run through 2010?$$It ran 'til 2010, right; '95 (1995) to 2010.$$Okay.$$Was the last one.$$All right. So, you said fifteen years. That pretty much locks you in (laughs).$$Oh, yeah. Yeah.$$Okay. So, what else? Anything else?$$You know, actually, I can make a list of students, because a lot of what we did was with students. I can talk about the, I think, maybe some special moments I had with students, whether it would be a teaching moment or a mentoring moment, and then look at the students three or four years down the road. But I guess I would say I always had a gang of students that I worked with, even after stepping down as dean and going into the--America's ranks and having my research projects at Howard, I still have four or five students that were, not necessary--I didn't have classes then, but they weren't in my classes, but students who came to me and kind of found me to be a person they could confide in or a person they could talk and- talk to, and we'd find ways to move them forward and help them to grow. So there were many, many, many students throughout the years that we had relationships with, in and outside the classroom that I think were very special to me, because I could see the students grow and go to the next places in their lives as a result.