Pearl Johnson

Pearl Ella Johnson was a leading African-American psychiatric survivor activist. Born in Hollywood, Louisiana, a small town outside of Shreveport, Ms. Johnson described her childhood as being wealthy because there was a garden with plenty of food — but also oil stoves and no running water. Young Pearl endured sexual molestation, physical violence and emotional harshness without losing the “jackrabbit” spirit that made her an outstanding athlete and potential Olympic runner. Then parental pain and confusion landed her in state custody at sixteen as an "out of control child."

But Pearl was an A student who played the saxophone -- a teenager intensely focused on sports and athletic success. When she found herself incarcerated in a California juvenile facility, Pearl used her athletic skills to escape and make her way to New York State. She was eventually arrested on “white slavery” charges, because a thirteen-year-old girl joined her in breaking out and crossing the country.

Pearl first encountered the mental health system when her frequent weeping got her labeled with depression. She returned home to California and to more maternal violence and abuse, until at seventeen she ran away for good. Pearl spent the next forty years in and out of jail, prison, hospital and drug rehabilitation programs, often living on the streets. Despite the violence and sexual abuse inflicted on her, the isolation, beatings, sedation and multiple near-death encounters while incarcerated, and the loss of custody of her three children and loss of her son to murder, Pearl's severe trauma was never acknowledged by the clinicians who labeled her "depressed" and "paranoid schizophrenic."

In 1990 Pearl was sleeping in the 51st Street Park in Los Angeles when an acquaintance encouraged her to visit nearby Oasis House. According to Pearl: “Those people loved me to death, and that’s where I began my road to recovery.” She met client advocate Gilbert Toliver and began learning basic skills – cooking, cleaning, using a computer, and most importantly, communication. She became an administrator with Project Return: The Next Step, and testified before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the legislature.

A vibrant and inspirational speaker, Pearl traveled widely to tell her story. She was beloved by the mental health and advocacy communities in and around Los Angeles. Pearl was a long time board member of the National Association for Rights Protection & Advocacy (NARPA), and a regular keynote and workshop presenter at NARPA's annual rights conferences. She became a continuing care worker with the L.A. County Dept. of Mental Health in 1994 and lived in her own home until her death in 2005. NARPA's annual Pearl Johnson Award and Los Angeles' Pearl Ella Johnson Wellness Center are named in Pearl's honor.