Stronger in the Broken Places
LeRoi C. Johnson on the childhood accident that helped forge a career
Published in 2022 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine on August 25, 2022
LeRoi C. Johnson was 10 years old, riding his bike across his hometown of Buffalo on an errand for his mother, when an inattentive ice-cream truck driver plowed into him, dragging the boy and his two-wheeler down the road.
It was as bad as it sounds. He suffered from extreme facial lacerations. He broke both legs, both arms, a rib, and spent months in traction, followed by months in a full body cast. He missed four years of school.
“I left school in third grade and came back in seventh with weird shoes, one leg shorter than the other and still on crutches, but I recovered quickly after that,” Johnson says. “I sure did miss interaction with kids those years, though.”
He still sees an upside in the trauma.
“I don’t see anything negative from that except maybe the parts that were broken are hurting a little bit more later in life,” says Johnson, now 73. “Other than that, I think it was an advantage, a gift from God.”
Having to work one-on-one with a private tutor while out of school pushed him academically until he was years ahead of his peers. Inspired by an art pad and pencils given to him as he recovered, he also pushed himself as a young artist, developing a bold and bright style that eventually garnered him international acclaim.
He also had time to lose himself in his music, becoming a proficient guitar player and a two-time inductee to the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame—as a member of the Stone City Family and as a manager for his older brother, Rick James. Yes, that Rick James.
“My brother was a superstar,” says Johnson, who for 10 years toured with his brother, acting as manager, lawyer and confidant. “I got to go to many places throughout the world, probably every major city in the country, and I had three objectives for every place: I wanted to visit the top museums and galleries, I wanted to taste the food, and I wanted to understand what the city is famous for.”
Another benefit of having a star as a sibling: Johnson got to know artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Peter Max, David Hockney and Keith Haring.
“I got a sense of what their life was about,” he says. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was mind-opening, an opportunity for me to think, ‘These guys are doing this. I paint. Maybe I can do something like that myself.’”
Johnson grew up in public housing in a city he calls “the most comfortable, beautiful place in the world.” The Buffalo of Johnson’s youth was rich with community and an “it takes a village” culture.
One of his mentors was beloved University at Buffalo basketball player Jim Horne, who wished to teach basketball and good citizenship to every kid he could.
“Jim gave me everything he had, which is why I try to do the same,” says Johnson, who, with Horne in mind, co-founded Buffalo’s Willie “Hutch” Jones Educational and Sports Program, so named for another famous Buffalo baller, more than 35 years ago. Since then, it’s grown from offering a basketball clinic to a multisport program with academic elements that has served more than 15,000 children. “Now I’m working with the grandchildren of the original kids. If just one of them becomes a promising citizen, we’ll have done our job.”
Carl Stokes and Louis Stokes, Johnson’s cousins, inspired his interest in law. As a former mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes become the first Black man elected to helm a major American city in 1967. Louis Stokes was Ohio’s first Black congressman. He was elected in 1969 and served 15 terms, plus co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and argued the infamous stop-and-frisk case Terry v. Ohio.
Johnson chose Georgetown University Law Center to spend time with Louis in the nation’s capital. He graduated in 1974 and began working as legislative counsel for the D.C. City Council, later becoming the leader of the city’s minority business affairs commission.
“I worked two blocks from the Supreme Court, walked the halls of Congress with my cousin and went to the National Press Club. I had very different perspective of politics,” Johnson says. “Politics is entertainment. Everybody wants their 15-minute sound bite and you don’t know if it’s real or if it’s not.”
In 1981, Johnson left government work to serve as his brother’s tour manager and lawyer. He honed his legal skills dealing with record companies and facing off against and alongside some of the country’s best known law firms. “There was a lot of learning on both sides,” he says.
After 10 years of traveling the world with James, Johnson wanted to return to more sturdy legal roots, so he hung a shingle in Buffalo and focused on personal injury cases. He also began building a name for himself as an artist, exhibiting paintings across the world from Florence and Argentina to Singapore and the 2019 London Art Biennale.
He credits his success to Abdias do Nascimento, the Brazilian painter, scholar, politician and civil rights leader. Years ago, people would compare Johnson to Nascimento, so he decided to contact him. “When I came to Brazil, he wanted to see my work, so I showed him and we clicked. We became very close friends. That’s why I’ve been able to show my art so many places,” Johnson says. “He basically carried me along as a mentor.”
He describes his art as “electric primitive,” featuring Pan-African influences, geometric shapes and references to religion and royalty. His newest exhibition, LEROI: Living in Color, opens Nov. 11 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College and will run through March 2023.
In Johnson’s world, law, art and music each informs the other, but they don’t overlap. Mornings and weekends are for art. Weekdays, and some evenings, are for law.
“And if I’m tired of those things, I’ll do music,” he says. “They all flow very evenly because I have a level of competence in each one. I know what I have to do in all three of my life’s disciplines. The real part of art for me, for music, for law, is conceptualization. So I sit, and I conceptualize until I know where I’m going.”