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Charles S. Johnson
Charles S. Johnson Charles S. Johnson


A leading sociologist of his generation, Charles S Johnson spent his career as a researcher, writer, critic, editor, and administrator Rising in his career at a time when sociology was making new inroads into American universities, Johnson looked to his academic profession and the emergence of the African-American arts as means for dismantling the barriers of racism A major figure behind the vibrant African-American art movement of the 1920s, Johnson has been recognized as one of the godfathers of the Harlem Renaissance--a period much indebted to his editorship of the Urban League's Opportunity magazine His subsequent sociological studies of the 1930s and 1940s as well as his participation in countless academic and government-sponsored committees have earned him praise as an inveterate champion of race relations Born on July 24, 1893, in Bristol, Virginia, Charles Spurgeon Johnson received a broad classical background from his father, Reverend Charles Henry Johnson, an emancipated slave whose former master tutored him in learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew As a child, Johnson read avidly and worked in a barbershop Because Bristol did not have a high school that accepted blacks, he attended Wayland Academy in Richmond He then attended Virginia Union University and funded his tuition by working summers aboard steamships sailing between North Folk and New York City In addition to playing on the university's football team, he served as student council president and editor of the school's newspaper.

After earning a BA and graduating with honors from Virginia Union University in 1916, he attended the University of Chicago, but briefly left his studies to volunteer for the army One of four hundred thousand African-Americans to serve in the military during World War I, he went to France with the 103rd Pioneer Infantry Division and rose to the rank of sergeant-major Returning to America, he resumed his studies at the University of Chicago under several prominent scholars, including the renowned sociologist Robert E Park Despite Park's belief in the peculiar racial endowments of blacks, he exposed Johnson to a cyclical theory that posited that contact and interaction between different racial groups was requisite to breaking the barriers of segregation and discrimination "The Chicago group demonstrated to Johnson," wrote Richard Robbins in Black Sociologists, "the value of the synthesis of sociological theory--especially the theory of cycles--and comprehensive research combining the statistical survey and the personal document" After graduating from the University of Chicago with a PhB (Bachelor of Philosophy), Johnson worked as a researcher for the Chicago Urban League.

A year later, beginning in May 1919, a wave of race riots erupted in twenty-six Northern and Southern cities On July 27, Chicago witnessed the outbreak of a seven-day citywide race riot which claimed the lives of 23 African-Americans and 15 whites Through the recommendation of Chicago Urban League president Robert Park, he gained an appointment to the Illinois Governor Frank Lowden's Committee to Investigate the Chicago Riot Among the panel's six black and six white members, Johnson served as "associated executive secretary" under white executive secretary Graham Romeyn Taylor, with whom he co-authored the committee's seven-hundred-page report, published in 1922 as The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot Though it minimized the responsibility of white oppression for the violence and offered little for the formation of public policy, the study-- acclaimed in scholarly journals and newspapers--is considered a landmark work of scholarship In 1921 Johnson became the Urban League's first national director of its newly established office of research and investigation in New York City He accepted the position at a yearly salary of $3600 During his first year with the national office, he edited the league's tabloid-style periodical Urban League Bulletin In an effort to upgrade the organization's publication, the league launched a new monthly publication called Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life in 1923 and selected Johnson as chief editor "Under Johnson's leadership," wrote Nancy J.

Weiss in The National Urban League, "Opportunity presented a reasonably balanced overview of Negro life in the 1920s" For Johnson this balance included a combination of academic scholarship and African-American arts, both of which he foresaw as equally powerful in advancing the cause of racial assimilation in American society As David Levering Lewis noted in When Harlem Was in Vogue, Johnson looked upon the African- American arts as providing "a small crack in the wall of racism that was worth trying to widen" Lewis added, "If the road to the ballot box and jobs was blocked, Johnson saw that the door to Carnegie Hall and New York publishers was ajar" Years later, as quoted in Harlem Renaissance Reader, Johnson expressed the purpose of the Opportunity, as "that of providing an outlet for young Negro writers and scholars whose work was not acceptable to other established media," and that its goal was to "disturb the age-old customary cynicisms" of the white publishing industry In 1925 Johnson's essay, "The New Frontage on American Life," appeared in Alain Locke's famous anthology The New Negro As editor and contributor, Locke announced a new dawning of the Negro, one that in the wake of his aesthetic and intellectual achievements would bring about a "New America" One of over thirty contributions, Johnson's essay revealed--consistent with the cyclical theories of the Chicago School--the conflicts and struggles of African-American migration from rural to urban life Aware of the economic strife, lack of union representation, and violence, he foresaw such manifestations of conflict as stages in the ultimate assimilation of African-Americans He believed that conflict would, over time, give way to racial cooperation, concluding in his essay, "where there is conflict there is change".

1925 Johnson, in cooperation with the Department of Industrial Relations, directed a study of negroes and unions He made an important contribution to the Harlem Renaissance by organizing the Opportunity's annual prize awards for literature and its elegant banquet award dinner held at the Fifth Avenue Restaurant In the following year an Opportunity prizewinner, poet Countee Cullen, became the magazine's assistant editor and author of the periodical's column "Dark Tower"--an acclaimed piece featuring works by African-American poets and writers At the end of 1927, the Opportunity's benefactor, the Carnegie Corporation cancelled the organization's annual eight-thousand- dollar grant Even during its peak year the Opportunity, a publication circulated to an interracial audience, sold only eleven thousand copies In need of funding, Johnson then turned to his friend, Sears Roebuck president Julius Rosenwald Learning that Rosenwald would not provide monetary support for the magazine, Johnson contemplated returning to academia That same year, he edited an anthology published by the Urban League, Ebony and Topaz, a work combining the contributions of sociologists like E Franklin Frazier and Ellsworth Faris, along with numerous literary figures such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson Without major funding for the Opportunity, Johnson decided to return to academic pursuits.

"Although the years with the Opportunity were a valuable experience for Johnson," noted Richard Robbins in Black Sociologists, "social science was to prove a stronger force than involvement in the Harlem Renaissance" Although he left the magazine, Johnson viewed art and social science as equally effective forces for evoking social change In his introduction to Jean Toomer's classic Cane, Arna Bontemps quoted Johnson, who stated: "A brief ten years have developed more confident self-expression, more widespread efforts in the direction of art than the long, dreary two centuries before" Decades later Johnson expressed, as quoted in Harlem Renaissance Reader, an undaunted faith in the contributions of the movement by describing it as "the comet's tail of a great cultural ferment in the nation, the `melting pot era,' a period of ascendancy of unbridled free enterprise" Having made vital contributions in promoting the African-American arts, Johnson returned to the study and instruction of social science In 1928 he became chairman of Fisk University's sociology department in Nashville, Tennessee, where he helped the institution become a leading a center for the training of blacks in the field of sociological research In 1930 he served on a three-member League of Nations team that investigated forced labor practices in Liberia On his way to Liberia, Johnson and his private secretary, John F Matheus--another contributor to the New Negro anthology-- traveled to Paris where they visited Countee Cullen and Paul Robeson, and attended parties at several of the city's fashionable salons Despite his feted reception in Paris, Johnson became outraged over the labor conditions in Liberia, and recorded his impressions in Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic, which was published after his death.

In the early 1930s Johnson conducted research on six hundred black families in Macon County--findings which were published his 1934 work Shadow of the Plantation--a significant study that, as Robbins pointed out in Black Sociologists, "took on a racial myth, the conception of the easygoing plantation life and the happy Negro, and replaced the myth with the objective truth: Macon County was a twentieth century form of feudalism based on cotton cultivation" Johnson's 1935 publication The Collapse of the Cotton Tenancy: 1933-1935 emerged as another landmark study Outside the influence Marxist thought, Johnson's Southern studies, as Robbins observed, "arrived pragmatically at a very close understanding of the way powerful agrarian and industrial interests shaped the `human relations' of race and racism" During the Depression Johnson became an advisor to a number of committees and governmental agencies In 1931 he became a consultant to a branch of President Herbert Hoover's Conference on Home Building, the Negro Housing Committee Three years later, he served on President Franklin D Roosevelt's New Deal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and on an advisory board for the National Youth Administration In 1936-37 he became a consultant to the US Department of Agriculture regarding farm tenancy.

Johnson's 1938 publication, The Negro College Graduate, dealt with the struggle of African-Americans to attain higher education In the following year, he contributed to the planning of Swedish sociologist Gunnar Mydral's famed study An American Dilemma From research prepared for the Southern Rural Division, Negro Youth Study, for the American Council Youth Commission and the Council of Education, Johnson compiled his work Growing Up in the Black Belt in 1941 An in-depth study of blacks who resided in eight southern counties, the book's methodical research incorporated the use of questionnaires, open-ended interviews, and personality profiles Two years later saw the publication of Johnson's work Patterns of Segregation and his appointment to a program on race-related problems for the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Christian Church That same year, he also served as director of the Julius Rosenwald Fund's interracial relations program Johnson's involvement in governmental agencies continued after World War II In 1946 he served as a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) delegation in Paris In cooperation with the United States Education for Japan Commission, he assisted in the investigation and reorganization of the country's educational system That same year, he succeeded Fisk University President Thomas Elsa Jones, becoming the institution's first black president.

In 1947 Johnson and Herman H Long produced their study People v Property: Race Restrictive Covenants in Housing Compiled from three years of research, the book addressed itself to inadequate housing conditions and discrimination among minority groups Johnson remained President of Fisk until his death on October 27, 1956 Throughout his career Johnson fought to usher in a new era of desegregation and racial assimilation Echoing the accomodationist views of Booker T Washington, he looked upon the African-American struggle to attain proper education and employment as an imminent conflict that, over time, would yield to a period of racial equality Like activist and writer W E.

B Du Bois, he promoted higher learning and the arts, and looked to them as a means of accelerating the cycles of social and cultural assimilation "Johnson made his appeal to experience," wrote S P Fullinwinder in The Mind and Mood of Black America "It is out of experience, he said, that we must forge our values and bring meaning to life" In life Johnson proved himself as an individual of vast experience A tireless and inveterate scholar and administrator, his participation as advisor on numerous committees and governmental agencies brought him high regard among his colleagues; his genuine concern for the advancement of his race relations and the cultivation of African-American arts have earned him respected place in the history of American social thought and culture .

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