There have been a lot of stories written about Johnnie Miller over the years, from a lot of angles. There’s Johnnie Miller the high school basketball coach who won 613 games at his alma-mater, Bryan County High School, then won some more at Tattnall County.
Or Johnnie Miller the Pembroke city councilman – he’s served on council since 1992, and was recently re-elected to still another term and reappointed as mayor pro tem. There’s Johnnie Miller the father, the volunteer, the deacon at Mount Moriah Baptist, the cancer survivor who volunteers with Relay for Life, the bus driver for the Bryan County Senior Center - and the list goes on.
But tell Miller he’s going to be the focus of a feature to wrap up Black History Month and he shifts the attention to his late father, Generuth Miller.
You understand if you’ve been around here awhile.
For starters, and despite the younger Miller’s gift for humor, there’s a seemingly areawide reticence among longtime North Bryan residents - especially natives - to talk about themselves.
In the son’s case, it’s also a reminder that if you’re discussing black history in Pembroke, his father, Generuth Miller, comes first.
The elder Miller, who passed away in 1992, was elected to serve on Pembroke city council in 1982, becoming the first African American city councilman in Bryan County.
Winning that first election wasn’t easy, longtime Mayor Judy Cook said.
“Back then, everyone ran at large, so Mr. Miller had to have the support of the whole city in order to be elected – which was not easy for anybody,” said Cook, who is the first woman to serve as Pembroke’s mayor. “He represented everyone well. He didn’t let people speak through him. If they wanted something, he told them to go to City Hall, get on the agenda and make your voice heard. That’s how a lot of our folks initially got involved.”
In 1990, after winning a couple of elections, Generuth Miller was appointed mayor-pro tem, a position he held until his passing in 1992 at the age of 63.
With two years remaining on the elder Miller’s term, Cowart and Cook talked Johnnie Miller into taking his father’s place on the council.
“I was kind of critical of all that, I was not going into politics,” Miller said. “I ended up stuck with it. And then I just learned to work with people and to be of service.”
In Pembroke, where most people know most people, or at least someone in their family, Generuth Miller was respected, and, perhaps more importantly, liked.
“He was easy going and very talkative,” his son recalled. “He was a person who was always talking to him. My mother used to send him to the grocery store, and if she sent him at 10 o’clock, at noon she’d have to send somebody for him, because he’d be out there talking to somebody at the post office and grocery store.”
Miller, who served on the Georgia Regional Development Commission and became an honorary lieutenant colonel to Gov. Zell Miller’s staff for his “outstanding citizenship,” was a man who had seen the world. From Alabama, the elder Miller attended Tuskegee Institute before being drafted during World War II. While stationed at Fort Stewart, he drove soldiers to Pembroke for USO shows and met his future wife, Maggie Simmons.
They wed in 1951 and over time raised a large family.
After getting out of the Army, the Millers moved to Savannah for a while before moving back to Pembroke, where Generuth Miller drove a bus for the Bryan County Board of Education and sold insurance as an underwriter through the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company.
And during that time, he served his church, Mount Moriah, and Pembroke’s black community. In a speech given in Generuth Miller’s honor after his passing, former Coastal Regional Development Commission Executive Director Vernon Martin called him “a catalyst for the black community in Pembroke, responsible for many changes that made life better for those of us who came after him.”
Martin said Miller was “highly respected from all those he came in contact with throughout the community and always did whatever he could to help others.”
He continued: “Gene always carried himself with dignity and held his head high.”
The younger Miller is now 67, and he’s been a community leader for 28 years, as well as a father and grandfather. He frequently ends his answers with the words “be of service,” and stays busy driving senior citizens around on buses or working with AAU basketball.
Or just being Johnnie Miller, who likes to laugh but is often kind. When Bryan Now editor Jamie Parker died unexpectedly in 2019, Miller spoke out during a Pembroke council meeting, saying “It’s sad to see the chair where my friend (Parker) sat.”
In addition to his work on behalf of all his interests, Miller serves as an officer with the Bryan County NAACP and thinks it’s leadership – he mentions Hubert and Johnnie Quiller and Dave Williams – is moving things in the right direction in the county for all people, regardless of skin color.
“It’s not about color. We’ve got a lot of white support now, and this is about helping everybody,” he said, noting he joined the NAACP after getting a $200 scholarship from the organization while he was in college. “I felt I owed them something for that, so I joined up because I wanted to help them out for helping me.” And then there’s an optimism that rises to the surface time and time again when discussing just about anything – even what is generally thought of as a dark time in the country’s collective history. A member of Bryan County High School’s first integrated class in 1969, Miller spent his junior year at Pembroke High School, which was where black students went before integration.
And then he and other blacks were sent to the white school. And it went well, he said.
“Integration was a lot smoother here than in Savannah,” he said. “I think that’s because most of our parents worked for them (Miller’s maternal grandfather was the town’s first black mechanic) and we knew them and they knew us, and we were a close knit community.”
Miller has said he can recall times when businesses were segregated, but Pembroke’s “come a long ways,” since. “I think there are minimal racial problems now. There’s prejudice on both sides, but people usually keep it to themselves,” he said. “Even our churches are interracial now. I think we have it better than they do in some northern cities and states.”
Pembroke City Administrator Alex Floyd grew up just outside the city limits of the town he’s worked for since 2016.
“I’ve had the privelige of knowing Johnny Miller my entire life,” Floyd said. “He’s been a friend to the family for four generations. He has the interest of his community at heart, and I look forward to many more years of his leadership.”
That might not come on city council. Miller, who recently had knee surgery – he played basketball and ran track at Savannah State – said he’s thinking about stepping down after this term and praises current council members, including Tiffany Walraven – long considered by some the heir apparent to Cook, who was elected to her fifth term as mayor in November.
Though Miller’s currently the only African American on the council, there’ve been others who’ve followed in the years after his father broke the color barrier in Pembroke.
Miller said he hopes to see an African American run to fill his seat.
“We worked so hard to get one on the council, I’d like to see us keep at least one African American on the council showing there’s equal representation here.”