Mrs. R. D. Johnston, called "Johnsie" by beloved ones and
friends, was the granddaughter of the rich and powerful Governor of North
Carolina, John Mottey Moorehead.
In 1870, she married General Robert D. Johnston. The family moved to
Birmingham in 1887. Mr. Johnston became the president of the First National
Mrs. Johnston was a deeply religious person. In Birmingham, she was
active in the religious and civic functions. She became a charter member of the
South Highland Presbyterian Church. She was the founder of the Highland Book
Club, and the Vice Regent for Alabama to the Mount Vernon Association.
For ten years every Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Johnston went to the
Mulga-Palos Mines prison camp. Being disturbed by the law in some cases and
wanting to correct such wrongs which she found, she solicited the support from
women's organizations and civic clubs concerning the importance of remedial
education for boys rather than punishment.
The Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs
appointed Mrs. Johnston chairman of a committee to investigate the possibility
of a school for young offenders. Following this investigation, she decided that
a school of opportunity where boys who had gone astray could be reclaimed
through the power of love to become good citizens was needed. She wanted a
self-perpetuating Board of Women, mothers of boys, who had leisure time to give
to the school. She wanted politics kept out and the Bible kept in. She prepared
a bill and went before the State Legislature to ask for funds which would
establish the school. The bill did pass without any problems, and the Alabama
Boys Industrial School was established.
Alabama established a board of women directors for the school, the first
of its kind for a state institution in the United States, and Mrs. Johnston
became the president of the Board of Directors and remained so until her death.
The school was located in the Roebuck area of Birmingham, and was opened in
1899 in a cabin on the property with five little boys from the police court in
The school's creation was a heroic performance which only a woman with an
inexhaustible store of courage, energy, and love such as Mrs. Johnston could
Mrs. Johnston lived on the campus of the industrial School in a house
which has been called "Little Mount Vernon", so named because she was
a Regent of Washington's home at Mount Vernon. Mrs. Johnston was a surrogate
mother to the boys and addressed them as "Son." No bars or locks were
permitted on the dormitory doors or windows and the school could have no prison
atmosphere. In the 1920's, the Industrial School was a model for state
reformatories all over the United States.