It’s 2003, and actress Taraji P. Henson’s star is on the rise. However, on one night in Washington, D.C., something terrible happens to her childhood sweetheart, who is also the father of her young son. Then, 13 years later, Henson finally opens up about the night that William LaMarr Johnson was killed.
Taraji Penda Henson entered the world on September 11, 1970, to Boris, a metalworker and janitor, and Bernice, the manager of a local department store. But even though she did not know it at the time, her parents’ relationship was sometimes violent. When Henson was just a little girl, then, her mother left her father for good.
Still, even though she was raised in a troubled neighborhood of Washington D.C., Henson never let her upbringing stand in the way of her success. After graduating high school, for instance, she went on to study drama at the city’s prestigious Howard University. And to pay her way, she took a part-time secretarial job at the Pentagon and worked as a singer and dancer on a dinner cruise.
In the early 1990s, Henson took her first steps into acting with small roles as an extra. Her first major part then came in 2001, when she portrayed Yvette in the movie Baby Boy. And just four years later, she was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of a prostitute in the acclaimed drama Hustle & Flow.
In 2009, moreover, Henson earned an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And at the same time, she was busy cultivating an impressive career in television, leading to her making her first outing as Empire matriarch Cookie Lyon – an iconic part that she continues to play to this day.
By 2016, then, Henson was so successful that she was named one of the world’s most influential people by Time. And she would add two more achievements to her impressive resume during that same year. As well as starring in the award-winning drama Hidden Figures, she also published her autobiography, entitled Around the Way Girl.
Soon, Around the Way Girl had made it onto The New York Times’ bestseller list and was winning acclaim from readers and critics alike. But in among the entertaining stories and anecdotes about Henson’s family, her life and her Hollywood career, the book also revealed some dark secrets hidden in the successful actress’ past.
Apparently, the book disclosed, Henson had met the love of her life when she was only 17. And even though the star did not reveal the man’s name in her autobiography, journalists have since determined that he was William LaMarr Johnson – a teenager also known as Mark and who similarly lived in Washington, D.C. According to Henson, though, her relationship with Johnson was troubled from the start.
In fact, Johnson is said to have felt somehow lesser than Henson – even while she was still just a student in high school. And although the pair initially went their separate ways, they rekindled their romance while Henson was studying at Howard University. Then, in her junior year, the future star became pregnant with Johnson’s child.
At first, the couple seemed to adapt well to their change in circumstances. Henson continued to study throughout her pregnancy, and Johnson tried to support her wherever he could. Then, on May 10, 1994, Henson gave birth to a son, Marcell. Ultimately, however, the young family started to come apart at the seams.
Faced with the difficulty of working at the same time as caring for a new baby, Henson grew stressed – a condition that was worsened by Johnson’s habit of vanishing without explanation. Inevitably, then, tensions boiled over, and during one particularly heated argument, Johnson lashed out at his girlfriend.
“The next thing I knew, Mark’s balled-up fist was coming straight for my face,” Henson wrote in her book. “I fell onto the bed crying and holding my mouth; blood seeped off my lips and across my teeth. Droplets splashed across my shoes… slowly creeping into the fibers of my suede boots.”
For Henson, then, enough was enough. She ordered Johnson out of the house and – against the advice of her father – called time on their relationship. However, she still allowed Johnson to have a relationship with his son. And at Christmas 2002 Henson watched with joy as the dad seemingly bonded with Marcell.
Sadly, though, Henson and Johnson’s peace was not to last. On January 25, 2003, the 34-year-old Johnson got into an altercation in an apartment in Washington, D.C. Apparently, he had accused the residents – married couple Russell and Charlotte Nickelson – of having caused intentional damage to a friend’s vehicle.
According to reports, a fight subsequently broke out, and the Nickelsons attacked Johnson with a lamp – and they also hit him over the head and punched and kicked him while he lay on the ground. If that weren’t enough, Charlotte allegedly used a knife to stab him repeatedly. And the fatally wounded Johnson had reportedly begged for water – only to be verbally abused, it’s said, by Charlotte.
Almost two years after Johnson’s passing, the Nickelsons appeared in court, where they entered a guilty plea. Convicted with voluntary manslaughter, Charlotte was ordered to spend 36 months behind bars, while Russell received a sentence of 50 months.
Meanwhile, although Henson and Johnson had not been together for almost a decade, she was nevertheless devastated by her former lover’s death. Their son also found himself forced to deal with heartbreak at a tender age. “[Johnson] was murdered when Marcell was nine,” Henson told Star magazine in 2015. “He’s had to deal with life in a way that a lot of young kids haven’t yet.”
Now, though, Henson remembers Johnson fondly – although she has not forgotten his more violent past. “I had my one bad boy,” she recalled to Star. “That was my son’s father, my first love, and he’s not with us, God rest his soul.” However, the actress has admitted that there may yet be meaning to be found in this tragic loss of life. “Do I mourn for him? Absolutely,” she continued. “I wish my son had his dad. But sometimes things line up and they have to happen, and we don’t know why.”
Today, Henson’s career is showing no signs of slowing down, with a number of movie appearances planned for the coming years. She also continues to impress critics as Cookie Lyon – a woman who has seen her own fair share of trauma. “I’m not some fantasy. I’m tangible,” Henson has said in her memoir. “And I bring that realness not only to the screen – where it deserves to be – but also out into the real world.”
It isn’t just Henson who has survived a traumatic past in order to find success, either. Apparently, Marcell is now tipped for Hollywood stardom, having appeared alongside his mother on the small screen. And happily, Henson appears to have found love once more – this time with former football player Kelvin Hayden. This time, then, her fans may hope that she gets the happy ending she deserves.