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Johnson, Charles Spurgeon

Johnson, Charles Spurgeon

July 24, 1893
October 27, 1956

Sociologist and editor Charles Spurgeon Johnson was born in Bristol, Virginia, and was given a classical education by his father, Rev. Charles Henry Johnson, a Baptist minister who had been taught to read English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by his former slave-master. In 1916 the younger Johnson earned a B.A. from Virginia Union University in Richmond.

In 1917 Johnson moved to Chicago to pursue graduate studies in sociology at the University of Chicago, where he became associated with a group of influential scholars who made up the Chicago School of Sociology, including Robert E. Park and W. I. Thomas. Johnson had a profound regard in particular for Park, his lifelong mentor who specialized in race relations and urban sociology. He received a Ph.B. in 1918, while serving as a director of research and records for the Chicago Urban League, of which Park was the president.

After the race riot of 1919, Johnson was appointed to the interracial Chicago Commission on Race Relations, coauthoring the committee report, "The Negro in Chicago: A Study in Race Relations and a Race Riot" (1922). Written under Park's supervision, this was Johnson's first major research project. It was also one of the first significant sociological studies indicating the persistence of racial segregation and discrimination within northern cities, and it warned that the pervasive barriers to black economic and social equality might provoke additional riots.

In 1921 Johnson moved to New York City to become director of research for the National Urban League. Two years later he founded the league's magazine, Opportunity : A Journal of Negro Life, which he edited from 1923 to 1928. This journal proved to be an important cultural force in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing many of the black poets and writers of the time and organizing literary contests and awards ceremonies to gain recognition for these authors and encourage white publishers to support them. As an editor, Johnson was also concerned with bringing social science research to a black general readership.

The bulk of Johnson's sociological contribution was made from 1927 to 1947, the period during which he served as chairman of the department of social sciences at Fisk University. In various publications, Johnson made a major contribution to the understanding of the South as a region, the economic foundation of race relations, and contemporary debate on racial problems. One of his most important books is Shadow of the Plantation (1934), a study of the collapse of southern cotton tenancy, in which he demonstrated that racial discrimination was compounded by the economic exploitation that existed in the South during the Great Depression. Johnson argued that sharecropping created an ongoing economic basis for racial discrimination, and demonstrated how powerful agrarian and industrial interests shaped the "human relations" of race and racism. In The Negro College Graduate (1938) he described in great detail how difficult it was for blacks to gain entrance to college and to advance professionally after graduation, and the economic and psychological problems this caused. Growing Up in the Black Belt (1941) showed black adolescence to be at once a product of the omnipresent "color system" and of the socialization process as it works out in any complex society with differences among young people in age, sex, class, and urban or rural background.

In 1947 Johnson became the first black president of Fisk University. Over the years, he was a consultant on race relations to presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1930 Johnson was a member of the League of Nations Commission whose mission was to investigate human rights violations in Liberia, and he served on the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1934. From 1936 to 1937 he was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the issue of farm tenancy and in 1946 a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Johnson died suddenly in 1956.

See also Harlem Renaissance; National Urban League; Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life ; Sociology


Blackwell, James, and Morris Janowitz, eds. Black Sociologists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Gilpin, Patrick J. Charles S. Johnson: Leadership beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Kellner, Bruce. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1984.

Rauschenbush, Winfred. Robert E. Park: Biography of a Sociologist. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1979.

jo h. kim (1996)
Updated bibliography

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