Romulus Johnson, now 39, sums up his youth this way: “Oh man, it was a lot of stuff. I went to an inner city high school, south central Los Angeles. My dad had substance abuse issues and was a single parent. We had extended periods of homelessness, and I spent time in foster care. It was just the general craziness of substance abuse and gambling issues.”
Romulus was born in Trinidad. When he was four, his mother was murdered by his half brother and he began living with his father who barely knew him. His father was an oil field worker and traveled extensively. They lived in Canada for a while and then moved to Los Angeles.
His father’s drug and gambling problems frequently left them homeless. At one point, Romulus and his three siblings went into foster care after they were discovered sleeping in a car. His two older brothers went into one foster home; he and his sister into another. “My brothers had an awfully rough time.” His foster parents, he said, were cold but didn’t mistreat him.
School became his home. “A lot of kids who don’t like their lives at home spend time in school and it pays off. I had some good supportive teachers and that was really the key.”
When Romulus was a sophomore in high school, only he and one brother were still living with their father. “One day my father said, ‘I’m tired. You guys got to go,’ and he kicked us out.” Fortunately his oldest brother, 20 years old with wife and baby, took them in to live in a one bedroom bungalow. “He did heroic work,” said Romulus, who got a job in a movie theater to help out financially.
Romulus took advanced placement courses, competed on the school’s academic decathlon team and won a medal for speech. Romulus was among the first group to be honored with a Beat the Odds award in 1990. The scholarship was beneficial and through CDF’s contacts, he got a good paying summer job each year during college as a paralegal. “Plus, I got to meet Alice Walker.” He attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
Romulus then studied African-American literature at Princeton University for three years. He began to question whether he really wanted to be in graduate school and left for what he thought would be a year to work in non-profits in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. on community development and housing. This work led him to law school at New York University.
Today, Romulus lives in Harlem and is senior regional attorney for the Federal Deposit Insurance Company in New York. He advises banks on following federal law, including the law prohibiting discrimination in housing loans. His ailing father lived with him for two years to get cleaned up and stabilized.