Los Angeles resident Evelyn Allen Johnson has been writing since she was five years old, thanks to a man who labored on the railroads for a living.

“My father was responsible for me reading and writing. He loved literature. He taught me to read and write by the time I was four,” explained Johnson who said she arrived in kindergarten with an interest in the arts, literature and poetry courtesy of her dad.

But growing up in 1930s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and aspiring to a career as a writer was unheard of for African Americans, so Johnson turned to nursing.

Writing, however, would not leave her alone, and she penned novels in her spare time.

“My first novel published, My Neighbor’s Island, won an award from the Vassie B. Wright Our Author’s Study Club in the early 1960s,” said Johnson, who was inspired by God to write her stories.

My Neighbor’s Island was published by Vanity Press and was about a black family moving into an all white neighborhood.

“I was inspired to write that and have it published, because that was the experience I had when I moved into Baldwin Hills. In 1968, the climate here was so terrible. We were the first blacks on the street. Kenny Washington moved in about the same time, and it was difficult. The neighbors didn’t speak to you, and didn’t want your children associated with their children,” recalled Johnson, who was in her late 40s at the time.

Like her subsequent books, her first novel exposed people to the African American experience.
But even as she was writing about the experience, Johnson was also a member of the Watts Writers’ Workshop, and was living the story as she struggled to get her book published.

“I went to New York down Madison Avenue. I went to all the top publishers. They wouldn’t even talk to me back in the 1960s. They would say black people don’t read, and white people would not be interested in what you have to say. We’re in the business to make money, so no we can’t publish your book.”

The only place that would publish African American authors in the 1960s was Vanity Press, and so that’s where Johnson went with My Neighbor’s Island.

Johnson has subsequently written other books that called on her experiences as a nurse and growing up in America. In fact, her latest book Pillar of Salt explores what it’s like to grow up in 1930s Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to take them back to that time to let them see what life was like during that period; what black people had to overcome–discrimination and segregation in a Northern city,” explained Johnson, who has written the story of a community filled with African Americans and immigrants.

She wrote about their lives, loves, aspirations, dreams and about their deaths.

But even in 2006, she still could not get mainstream publishers to consider her work because of its “sensitive” nature, consequently Johnson created her own publishing company a decade ago to produce her work.

The ultimate goal with Lynray Press, said the public health nurse, is to publish the works of other African American authors with talent, a story to tell but no one to publish them.