Newark’s first Black woman municipal court judge, Golden Elizabeth Johnson, was born April 10, 1944, in Newark, New Jersey, to LeRoy Johnson, a civil rights activist and tenant president of a housing project, and Lucy Melton Johnson from Wilson, North Carolina. Golden had two sisters, Courtenaye Johnson Lawrence and Deborah Johnson Carter, and one brother, Monroe Smith. They were reared in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Homes, a housing project “down neck” in Newark’s East Ward.
In 1961, Johnson graduated from Newark’s East Side High School. In her senior year, she spent her summer vacation in Wilson, North Carolina, her mother’s hometown, where racial tension was ever-present. Black residents felt uncomfortable inside the newly integrated Wilson County Public Library. Nonetheless, Johnson tested uncharted waters by sitting and reading in a section of her choice.
Returning home after the vacation, she enrolled in Douglass College of Rutgers University. In 1964, after only three years, Johnson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology. She worked for the Veterans Administration as a tuberculosis researcher until 1970. The following year, she earned a doctorate from Rutgers University Law School, passed the bar, and became director of the Community Legal Action Workshop, advocating for plaintiffs in civil liberties discrimination cases.
In 1974, Newark’s first Black mayor, Kenneth A. Gibson, appointed her a judge in the Newark municipal court, thus becoming the first Black woman to serve in this position in the state. During her tenure on the bench, Johnson co-founded the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey; the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association, the national organization of black lawyers; and the Garden State Bar Association.
Johnson left the bench in 1980 to challenge veteran Democratic U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter W. Rodino for New Jersey’s 10th District seat. Her bid was unsuccessful. She finished third in the race with 12% of the vote.
After the election, Johnson served as an assistant Essex County prosecutor until 1995.
She married James Russell Johnson. Their children are Linda Johnson Drumwright, Brenda Johnson Miller, and Joyce Johnson Bowers.
Golden Elizabeth Johnson died on October 5, 2010. She was 66.