Raymond Lewis Johnson was born in 1943 in Alice, Texas, a small town near Corpus Christi. His mother, Johnny Virginia Johnson, his maternal grandmother, Virginia Pleasant Johnson Thompson, and her second husband, a preacher, Benjamin Thompson, raised him. Johnson's grandfather taught him how to read and do arithmetic and hence gave him a head start toward a formal Education, allowing him to skip the first two grades when he entered school.
Johnson attended a two-room schoolhouse for Black students in the segregated community where he grew up. Four grades met in each room. When he walked to school everyday, he passed a new elementary school, which however at that time did not educate Black members of the community.
The Black community was not large enough to have an all Black secondary school so Johnson planned to travel by bus 28 miles to Kingsville, Texas. However, he was not bused as a direct result of the Texas schools' complying with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education. This ruling affected schools across the nation by pronouncing that school segregation was unconstitutional and emphasizing that the "separate but equal" doctrine was not longer acceptable when it came to the Education of United States citizens.
Education in the United States was also impacted by international events. In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, a satellite designed to measure the density of the upper atmosphere. This amazing event demonstrated that the United States was falling behind the Russians in the race for technological advancement. The need to train more students to become mathematicians and scientists became paramount.
To meet the demand by the government to improve student preparation in mathematics and science, Alice High School offered advanced mathematics courses as well as an enrichment section of mathematics that met before school began each day. This class attracted as many as ten students, one of whom was Johnson.
The teacher, Larry O'Rear, along with Stan Brooks, the school counselor, encouraged Johnson to apply to college. Although he had done well academically throughout high school, his social development was behind the other students because he had skipped the first two grades. Johnson stayed an extra year at Alice, and then attended the University of Texas in Austin as the recipient of a National Merit Scholarship. This scholarship paid his full tuition and provided him with a small stipend.
O'Rear recommended Johnson to Dr. H.B. Curtis, a professor at the University. O'Rear had attended the university and Curtis had been his advisor. Under the direction of Curtis, Johnson began a sequence of self-study courses in calculus using the text of Haaser, La Salle and Sullivan. Johnson did not begin to attend regular lectures until he enrolled in advanced calculus. He concentrated on applied rather than pure mathematics.
Although the University of Texas was desegregated, this was apparent only in the classroom. Johnson recalls other aspects of campus life such as living in the dormitories and participating in sports which were reserved only for White students. Many Black students protested because they were required to pay the same fees, but were not granted the same privileges. Nonetheless, Johnson was glad to be in college and without the Merit Scholarship he believes his opportunities would have been very limited.
Curtis encouraged Johnson to apply to graduate school at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Curtis had received his Ph.D. from Rice, and he would be returning there to do research while on sabbatical from the University of Texas. Once at Rice, Johnson chose Dr. Jim Douglas Jr., as his advisor.
Rice University was not untouched by the integration movement. The founder of the college stated in his will that Rice should educate the White citizens of Texas. However, the university changed its admissions policy. Johnson was accepted as and a result, two alumni sued. Johnson spent his first year as a research assistant, and did not attend classes. Rice won the suit, and Johnson was fully admitted. He is the first African American to graduate from Rice University.
Johnson met his wife, Claudette, during his third year at Rice, while she was a sociology major attending Texas Southern University in Houston. They met when mutual friends got together to see if the open-accommodations law was in effect; they wanted to be served publicly in several previously segregated restaurants.
When Douglas left Rice to take a position at the University of Chicago, Johnson and his wife went with him. Since he was only one year into his doctoral research it was an easy transition to make. Johnson's dissertation, entitled "A Priori Estimates and Unique Continuation Theorems for Second Order Parabolic Equations," was completed in 1969. His interests eventually moved toward theoretical mathematics and harmonic analysis.
Johnson has chosen academic life over corporate research and development because he wanted to have control over his research, and he likes to teach. As a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Johnson's current mathematical interests are in weighted spaces and estimates for operators on those spaces. He actively recruits Black students into the graduate mathematics program and then works with them to keep attrition levels low. He designed a program that helps keep the graduate students informed about administrative and academic requirements, and looks for ways to eliminate the barriers that prevent minority students from becoming successful. He combines this work with another program of the American Mathematical Society that works with African American juniors and seniors in college to keep the mathematical pipeline better filled with minority students.