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GREENWOOD Dist.–Owner and CEO Aaron “AJ” Johnson has gained national recognition and support for his leadership at Oasis Fresh Market, but allegations of financial misconduct and a hostile work environment have embroiled majority-Black North Tulsa’s only grocery store in controversy.
City data show that North Tulsans experience an 11-year life expectancy gap compared to the rest of the city. The groundbreaking opening of Oasis Fresh Market in May 2021 sought to change that. The impact has been palpable.
From hosting free health screenings to sponsoring meals at local schools, Oasis Fresh Market is more than just a grocery store.
It’s also the only grocery store in the city that is part of the federal Double-Up program. The program gives low-income shoppers a dollar-for-dollar match on their EBT to spend on fresh fruits and veggies.
“We want to be the center of the community,” AJ Johnson, 37, told The Black Wall Street Times in an exclusive sit-down interview at his grocery store on Sept. 12.
(The full video interview can be found at the bottom of this article)
From Pastor to North Tulsa Grocery Store Owner
AJ Johnson has worn several hats. He’s served as a pastor at Victory Christian Church, a director of the Tulsa Dream Center, and now owner and CEO of Oasis Fresh Market.
As one of the few Black business owners to gain support from both major political parties, the state legislature had planned to give Johnson $30 million to build four more Oasis stores in other underserved areas of Northeastern Oklahoma.
But a report from NonDoc in the spring that detailed questionable oversight of the for-profit North Tulsa grocery store and his non-profit Oasis Fresh Foundation led to the legislature backpedaling.
“We’ve learned so much. Being a first-generation business owner, opening at the height of Covid, as well as trying to offer wrap-around services during the pandemic, it was a lot all at once,” Johnson told The Black Wall Street Times.
Johnson said looking back he “would’ve done things differently,” but he didn’t specify what exactly he would’ve done differently.
In a series of interviews with former employees who left Oasis Fresh Market in May, they detailed a hostile work environment.
Meanwhile, City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper told The Black Wall Street Times she holds complete trust in Johnson.
“I absolutely trust AJ 100% in owning and operating Oasis Fresh Market,” Councilor Hall-Harper said on Friday.
Lawmaker praises AJ Johnson
In September 2021, the state legislature planned to appropriate $30 million for Oasis to build four more stores as part of a $100 million appropriations bill for the Oklahoma Dept. of Human Services to disperse to nonprofits. The bill was delayed due to a squabble between House and Senate leadership over how much to fund domestic violence services.
By the time the legislature heard the bill again in February, they’d already removed Oasis from the conversation after scrutinizing the lack of information about the leadership structure of Johnson’s nonprofit Oasis Fresh Foundation.
But he still had support from lawmakers.
Rep. Jeff Boatman (R-Tulsa) gave praise to Johnson in an interview with NonDoc published in February.
“AJ is pretty impressive. We went out and watched him in the store,” Boatman said.
The report went on to show that legislators hadn’t received necessary tax forms and that people who were listed as board members on Oasis Fresh Foundation weren’t even aware they were listed. He removed his wife from the board following NonDoc’s reporting.
“It’s okay to pace. Looking back for us, we would’ve done things differently, but at the same time we’ve learned so much as a result that has helped us build on a firmer foundation,” Johnson said when asked about the report.
On Tuesday, FOX23 reported that a plan to build a new Oasis grocery store downtown was scrapped following the critical news coverage.
Former employee speaks out
Meanwhile, Tamara Lock, a former assistant to Johnson at the North Tulsa grocery store, said she was fired because she believes his relatives didn’t like her.
“Basically I was in charge of everything ‘AJ’,” Lock told The Black Wall Street Times in September. Lock, 49, said she dealt with emails, store visits, employees, scheduling appointments, keeping processes in place, stocking groceries, and cleaning bathrooms.
Everything was great at first, she said. The mission of the company and Johnson’s Christian ties drew her to join the team. But she said Johnson employed his mother, sister and niece in management roles, which she said caused issues.
“AJ’s mother seemed to hone in on me,” Lock said. Eventually, internal employee issues caused her to feel isolated from her peers.
From that point on, Lock said, she continued to help other employees with grievances but no longer felt passionate about coming to work. Ultimately, Lock said Johnson put her on a probationary action plan and eventually fired her after she asked for an employee handbook.
“At the time I left, all of his managers had quit or had been fired. His sister was the only one left,” Lock said.
During the interview with Johnson at Oasis on Sept. 12, The Black Wall Street Times met two employees who said they joined the team a few months ago.
Johnson gains national support for North Tulsa grocery store
For Johnson, however, continuing to run the ship remains his only focus.
“For us the ultimate goal is how do we reach people and bring fresh and healthy access,” he said. “It’s more than just groceries.”
He also acknowledged that being a leader in the community comes with criticism.
“Yes, opening up a grocery store is a privilege, but that comes with pressure. It comes with people criticizing or cheering you on one side or the other,” Johnson said.
He’s already gained support across the state from both conservatives and liberals.
In July, the Federal Trade Commissioner visited Oasis in North Tulsa to expose inequities Black-owned grocery stores face.
“A.J. told me, you know that I’m running an independent grocery store and I go online to buy my product and I literally cannot access the same prices as my competitors,” Commissioner Bedoya said during his visit. “The way I read the law, you should be able to access the same deals and have the same ability to purchase products as your competitors.”
This year, Oasis will be featured in an episode on the Oprah Winfrey Network as part of its new series on Black Wall Street. The six-part docuseries “Rebuilding Black Wall Street” premieres on Sept. 29 on OWN.
Army Veteran quits working at North Tulsa grocery store
Kshon Camp, 33, served in a management role at Oasis before quitting in May. Speaking with The Black Wall Street Times, Camp claims Johnson refused to give him FMLA (Family and Medical Leave) after his sister went into a medically-induced coma.
“I wore multiple hats,” Camp said. He worked at Oasis between September 2022 and May 2023. Camp said he was initially hired as a produce manager. He said he eventually took over the meat department as well, along with scheduling.
“He always spoke to employees in a belittling way through tone and body language and cussing us out,” Camp said.
Camp said if an employee wasn’t related to Johnson, then “we got walked all over, our pay wasn’t right.”
Ultimately, he claims the denial of his FMLA to take care of his sister’s kids was the last straw.
“To be completely honest with you, I would prefer to see a new owner at that store, whether they’re African American or not. Because AJ is all about himself,” Camp said.
Meanwhile, Johnson told The Black Wall Street Times running a North Tulsa grocery store isn’t easy. He said the criticism he’s faced in recent weeks takes a mental toll.
“Being owner and CEO, there’s times when my mental health is tough. Working 100-plus hours and not sleeping,” he said. “We want our community to be strong in all areas.”
Born in Milwaukee, Johnson grew up in a single-parent household. “I always had to fight, but that fight has led to great things,” he said.
Former tenant of Tulsa Dream Center home speaks out
Another NonDoc report published at the end of August detailed allegations appearing to show that when Johnson was director of the Tulsa Dream Center, he deeded himself a property that was meant for a homeless tenant and used it to take out a mortgage.
Derricka Blue, a North Tulsa native, moved into a Tulsa Dream Center home at 6327 N. Boulder Ave. with her paralyzed, sick grandfather in 2020. The house was donated to TDC to use for housing-insecure families.
Yet Blue dealt with busted pipes, a broken heater, and mold. She told NonDoc the owners of the home refused to fix it. Blue said it became a nightmare.
In July, records obtained by NonDoc show Johnson transferred the deed to the home from his company DreamCo Solutions to a rental company owned by Scott Gordon.
Ultimately, Gordon filed an eviction notice against her in August of 2023. Yet she claims the owner broke the lease by never fixing the pipes, HVAC and mold. The eviction was thrown out in court.
“My faith has never been in a building or man. My faith lies in God,” Blue told The Black Wall Street Times in September. She said she still supports the Tulsa Dream Center’s services, but she believes AJ Johnson doesn’t represent the community well.
Her grandfather died a year after they moved into the home, and she believes mold played a role. Despite the family emergency she was going through, Blue said the owner was still demanding a rental payment.
“I’m trying to grieve. I thought y’all was my church and home,” Blue said.
Tulsa City Councilor defends AJ Johnson
In recent days, some people on social media have called for boycotts of Oasis.
Most North Tulsans, however, have defended the need for Oasis Fresh Market in the community.
District 1 Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper has fought harder than anyone to end the food desert in her district. When asked whether she trusts Johnson to lead Oasis in light of recent allegations, she didn’t flinch.
“Whenever a Black man is functioning successfully in a space where he is not normally accepted, the enemy will come and attack. I believe that this is simply an attack to destroy his credibility so that a Black-owned grocery store will be unsuccessful,” she added.
Johnson isn’t deterred by the allegations. He plans to keep expanding programs that support the community while continuing to offer fresh, healthy food options to North Tulsa. To the little Black boys coming up after him, he said his advice would be to know your worth and keep going no matter what.
For Johnson, the criticism and sleepless nights have been painful but worth it.
“Whether it was me or anyone else, it doesn’t change the fact that North Tulsa deserves fresh and healthy access; North Tulsa needs fresh and healthy access; North Tulsa has fresh and healthy access, and we’re grateful to play our part in that,” Johnson said.