Guy Benton Johnson

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Guy Benton Johnson

Guy Benton Johnson (1901-1991) was a sociologist, social anthropologist, and archaeologist. He was a distinguished student of black culture in the rural South and a pioneer white southern advocate of racial equality.

Guy B. Johnson was born in Caddo Mills, Texas, where he grew up on a farm. He took degrees in sociology from Baylor University (A.B., 1921), the University of Chicago (M.A., 1922), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Ph.D., 1927). In 1936-1937 he did postdoctoral study in anthropology at Chicago and Yale.

After teaching a year each at Ohio Wesleyan University and Baylor College for Women (now Mary-Hardin Baylor), Johnson was recruited to North Carolina as a research assistant in Howard W. Odum's new Institute for Research in Social Science in 1924, which he never left for long. He taught at Chapel Hill from 1927 until he retired as Kenan Professor of Sociology and Anthropology in 1969. He held visiting professorships at Louisiana State University, Peabody College, Earlham College, the University of Hawaii, and Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa).

Along with Odum, Rupert B. Vance, Katharine Jocher, and others, Johnson was one of the remarkable group who put Chapel Hill sociology on the map in the 1920s and 1930s. He also taught the university's first anthropology courses. While his main writings were on southern Black folk culture and U.S. race relations, his interests and accomplishments were broad. He wrote about musicology and contemporary Africa and was co-founder of the Archaeological Society of North Carolina in 1933 and its president from 1941 to 1943. As a staff researcher in the early 1940s, he analyzed many of the data that went into Gunnar Myrdal's monumental study of American race relations, An American Dilemma (1944). He was coeditor of Social Forces, a major sociological journal, from 1961 to 1969.

Johnson's most notable scholarly contributions were his studies of southern rural black culture, done early in his career. In Folk Culture on St. Helena Island (1929) he analyzed the Gullah dialect of English spoken by blacks on that isolated South Carolina island and, in sophisticated technical detail, the musical structure of the spirituals they sang to support a new interpretation of black folk culture. He argued that neither the dialect nor the music had many characteristics brought to America by slaves from Africa. Rather, he wrote, they were somewhat-altered versions of the dialect and music of lower-class whites, with a small amount of African influence on the kinds of changes the blacks had made.

Johnson's thesis may seem tame today, but it stirred up heated controversy then. It offended nearly everyone who was interested in the subject. Leading anthropologists had argued that much of American black culture consisted of "African survivals," and attacked Johnson for disagreeing with them. Some Black intellectuals did not like what they saw as a denial that Blacks were capable of inventing their own culture, though Johnson had taken pains to show that the Black versions of many cultural patterns were more intellectually complex than the original white versions. Most of all, racist whites were upset by the notion that white and black cultures had been blended; they wanted both the cultures and the people kept separate. Johnson neither backed off nor counterattacked. He let the evidence in his book speak for itself.

In the 1930s Johnson turned his attention to current race relations. From then on, he was best known as a tireless and influential worker for racial equality. He wrote articles advocating equality and analyzing the harm done to African Americans by discrimination. He was active in organizations dedicated to equality. From 1944 to 1947 he was executive director of the Southern Regional Council, a biracial organization working for interracial cooperation throughout the South. He was a trustee of Howard University from 1937 to 1974, a trustee of the Phelps-Stokes Fund from 1948 to 1975, and at various times an officer of the North Carolina Council on Human Relations.

He was not a civil rights "activist." He did not help organize demonstrations, civil disobedience, or other forms of mass protest that became the chief weapons of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He aimed his message at white professionals such as journalists and clergymen. He tried to persuade them to say in public that segregation was wrong and to cooperate with African American professionals in efforts to influence community officials. For this moderate, conciliatory approach he was later criticized by African American activists and white liberals; but he knew that the leaders of mass activism would have to be African American. When the civil rights movement flowered, he was an approving spectator, not a participant, but his work had helped pave the way. Simply advocating racial equality took courage in the South of the 1930s. There was organized pressure on the University of North Carolina to fire Johnson. (The university ignored it.) He got hate mail, including death threats. None of this slowed him down, or speeded him up either; he just went about his work, teaching, doing scholarly research, and writing the truth as he saw it.

In recognition of his research and service, Johnson received the Anisfield Award for Research in Race Relations in 1937 and the Catholic Committee of the South Award for Work in Human Relations in 1948. In 1975 the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill honored him and his wife, Guion Griffis Johnson, a noted historian, with Distinguished Alumnus awards. The Southern Sociological Society elected him its president for 1953-1954, and in 1987 inscribed his name on its Roll of Honor.

Johnson's analyses of race relations reflected optimism tempered by realism. From 1920s population data showing a vast migration of southern blacks to northern city ghettos and a continuing high birth rate among the blacks who had moved, he predicted that militant black nationalism would grow alongside blacks' demands for integration into the mainstream of society; but he also predicted that black separatist movements would have little effect on the pace or nature of desegregation. In 1953, a year before the Supreme Court mandated the desegregation of schools, he wrote: "Anyone who thinks that the transition from segregation to racial coeducation can be made without problems … is a fool. Anyone who thinks the transition means the end of civilization is a fool. The operation may be serious, but the patient will recover. And when he recovers and looks back over his experience, he may say, -Well, it wasn't half as bad as I thought it would be."' History has borne out these forecasts.

Further Reading

Besides many articles and book chapters, Johnson published seven books: The Negro and His Songs (with Howard W. Odum, 1925), Negro Workaday Songs (with Odum, 1926), Folk Culture on St. Helena Island (1929), John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (1930), Encyclopedia of the Negro, Preparatory Volume (with W.E.B. DuBois, 1944), Folk, Region, and Society: Selected Papers of Howard W. Odum (edited with commentary, with Katharine Jocher, George L. Simpson, Jr., and Rupert B. Vance, 1964), and Research in Service to Society: The First Fifty Years of the Institute for Research in Social Science (with Guion Griffis Johnson, 1980). This last-named book, a history of the research center founded by Odum at Chapel Hill, gives many facts about Johnson's academic career, especially about his research projects. Discussions of Johnson's relations with his mentor Odum and of his strong influence on the thinking of southern social scientists and intellectuals about blacks and black-white relations appear at various points in Daniel Joseph Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (1982). □