All times are right for remembering good people, but Black History Month is especially right for commemorating Lonnie Johnson, an athletic Air Force veteran who once owned five businesses in Hempstead.
A picture of “Big Lonnie” emerges from past news articles and from an interview with his son, longtime school board member and former village trustee Lamont Johnson.
“My dad was born Dec. 8, 1937,” said Lamont. “He went into the Air Force at the age of 17. He was a medic and was stationed at Mitchel Field from 1954 to 1960. While he was there, he practiced judo and he also was a boxer. According to him, he was the Air Force heavyweight boxing champ for two years. When he got older, he was a very big guy and they called him Big Lonnie.”
Lonnie grew up poor in Detroit, Michigan. He attended the Baptist church pastored by Aretha Franklin’s father. Joe Louis, the world heavyweight boxing champion, lived in his neighborhood. Only 23 when he left the Air Force, he built on his military training to establish himself in the security field.
“He worked in the Nassau County District Attorney’s office as an investigator,” said Lamont. “Then he became a corrections officer. He worked at Rikers Island, and also for the State Department of Corrections.”
In the late 1960s, while hired as a special patrolman for the former Hempstead Bus Terminal (100 Main Street), Lonnie met his wife, Lillian. She had come to Hempstead by bus from Alabama to be a nanny for the children of Wall Street businessman John S.R. Shad.
Three children were born to the couple by 1971: Brenda, Lonnie Jr., and Lamont. During this time, Lonnie turned his security expertise in an entrepreneurial direction.
“When they built 100 Terrace Avenue in 1972,” said Lamont, “my father had the contract to provide security during the construction, to make sure nobody stole any equipment and things of that nature.”
While continuing security work, Lonnie also saw opportunity in the growing trend toward disco nightclubs. Early in 1974, three years before Studio 51 existed in Manhattan, he opened the Flagstone Club on North Franklin Street in Hempstead. It became a sought-after destination, and before long, opened another Flagstone Club on West Columbia Street.
In an interview with Newsday journalist Les Payne April 13, 1974, Lonnie frankly addressed Long Island’s de facto segregation. He also said that not enough was being done to keep young black people out of jail, and that more people of color should be hired at all levels of law enforcement.
“My father was very active in convincing African American males to take law enforcement tests like police, corrections, court officers,” said Lamont. “He told them when the tests were being offered and how to handle the applications. I know several corrections officers that he helped through the process.”
In fact, Lonnie inspired his own sons. “My father was beyond proud that both of his sons went into law enforcement,” said Lamont. Both built careers in the Hempstead Police Department.
In 1980 , a if owning Flagstone Protective Service and two nightclubs wasn’t enough, Lonnie took over the Hempstead Theatre on Fulton Avenue. He subsequently took over the Rivoli on West Columbia, which had been renamed Adelphi Calderone Theatre, or ACT. Big-name performers came to his venues. The ACT Theatre hosted groups such as Bogey Down Productions with KRS 1 and Statler Rock, female rapper MC Lyte, and Stetsasonic. Curtis Blow performed at the Hempstead Movie Theatre in 1983. Lonnie acted as promoter when the Sugar Hill Gang gave a concert at the Holiday Inn that once stood on Clinton Street.
A crowning moment came in 1988, when then-presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the ACT Theatre. Lonnie Jr. and Lamont were pictured in a Newsday article, helping their father prepare for the sold-out event.
During this time, Flagstone Protective Service kept supplying private investigation, bodyguards, and security guards, armed and unarmed. Lonnie held construction contracts for the Long Island Marriott in Uniondale in 1982, the UPS building on Oak Street and the Garden City Hotel in 1983, and 16 other sites in upstate New York.
In the midst of the activity, Lonnie’s three children prospered.
“They raised us well,” Lamont said. “My father was very firm and tough and my mother was very nurturing and caring, so I had the perfect balance. We all graduated from the Hempstead Public Schools. My brother and I graduated from Nassau Community College with associate degrees in criminal justice. My sister became a sought-after beautician in Hempstead.”
Lonnie and Lillian retired to Atlanta in 1996. Lonnie died in 2001 at age 64. Lillian, now 79, returned to the Hempstead area, surrounded by her family.
“So – two movie theaters, two nightclubs, and a security company,” summarized Lamont. “And my father also ran a carnival in Baisley Park, Queens in 1998, and a two-week carnival in 1991 at One Greenwich Street in Hempstead.”
Lamont is carrying on his father’s legacy of public service. He was a village trustee, 2017-21, and has been a member of the Hempstead School Board since 2013.