Johnson, Charles S. 1893-1956

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Charles S. Johnson 1893-1956

Sociologist, writer, educator, editor

At a Glance

Red Summer 1919

The Urban League and the Harlem Renaissance

The New Negro Movement

Department Head at Fisk University

Academic Advisor During the Great Depression

African-American Sociologist in Postwar America

Selected writings


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 Leagues 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 universitys football team, he served as student council president and editor of the schools newspaper.

After earning a B.A. 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 Parks 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

At a Glance

Full name, Charles Spurgeon Johnson; born July 24,1893, in Bristol, VA; died October 27,1956; son of Reverend Charles Henry Johnson. Education: Virginia Union University, B.A., 1916; University of Chicago, Ph.B., 1919.

Worked as a researcher for Chicago Urban League, 1918-19; appointed to Illinois Governors Committee to investigate Chicago race riot, 1919; co-authored study of riot, 1922; became director of research and investigation for the National Urban League, 1921; became editor of Urban League publication Opportunity, 1923; Fisk University, Nashville, TN, chairman of department of social sciences, 1928-46, president, 1946-56. Consultant to President Herbert Hoovers Conference on Negro Housing, 1931; served on Tennessee Valley Authority, 1936-37; directed a program for the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Christian Church, 1943; president of Southern Sociological Society, 1945-46; delegate to UNESCO and member of U.S. State Departments group sent to assess Japanese educational system, 1946. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1918.

Selected awards: Wolf-Ansfield Award for The Negro College Graduate; received honorary doctoral degrees from Harvard University, Columbia University, Howard University, Virginia Union University, and University of Glasgow, Scotland.

synthesis of sociological theory-especially the theory of cycles-and comprehensive research combining the statistical survey and the personal document.

Red Summer 1919

After graduating from the University of Chicago with a Ph.B (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 Lowdens Committee to Investigate the Chicago Riot. Among the panels 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 committees seven-hundred-page report, published in 1922 as The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations anda 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.

The Urban League and the Harlem Renaissance

In 1921 Johnson became the Urban Leagues 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 leagues tabloid-style periodical Urban League Bulletin. In an effort to upgrade the organizations publication, the league launched a new monthly publication called Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life in 1923 and selected Johnson as chief editor. Under Johnsons 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.

The New Negro Movement

In 1925 Johnsons essay, The New Frontage on American Life, appeared in Alain Lockes 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, Johnsons 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 Opportunitys 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 magazines assistant editor and author of the periodicals column Dark Tower-an acclaimed piece featuring works by African-American poets and writers.

At the end of 1927, the Opportunitys benefactor, the Carnegie Corporation cancelled the organizations 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.

Department Head at Fisk University

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 Sociolo-gists, 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 Toomers 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 comets 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 Universitys 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 citys 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- 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. Johnsons 1935 publication The Collapse of the Cotton Tenancy: 1933-1935 emerged as another landmark study. Outside the influence Marxist thought, Johnsons 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.

Academic Advisor During the Great Depression

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 Hoovers Conference on Home Building, the Negro Housing Committee. Threeyears later, he served on President Franklin D. Roosevelts 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding farm tenancy.

Johnsons 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 Mydrals 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 in1941. An in-depth study of blacks who resided in eight southern counties, the books methodical research incorporated the use of questionnaires, open-ended interviews, and personality profiles. Two years later saw the publication of Johnsons 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 Funds interracial relations program.

African-American Sociologist in Postwar America

Johnsons 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 countrys educational system. That same year, he succeeded Fisk University President Thomas Elsa Jones, becoming the institutions 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.

Selected writings

The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations, Urban League, 1922.

(Editor) Ebony and Topaz: A Collection, National Urban League, 1927.

The Negro in Civilization: A Study of Negro Life and Race Relations in the Light of Social Research, Holt, 1930.

(With Edwin R. Embree and W. W. Alexander) Shadow of the Plantation, University of Chicago Press, 1934.

The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy, University of North Carolina Press, 1935.

A Preface to Understanding, New York Fellowship Press, 1936.

The Negro College Graduate, McGrath, 1938.

Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South, American Council on Education, 1941.

Backgrounds to Patterns in Negro Segregation, Crowell, 1943.

Patterns of Negro Segregation, Harper & Brothers, 1943.

Into the Mainstream: A Study of the Practices of Race Relations in the South, University of North Carolina Press, 1947.

(With Herman H. Long) People Versus Property: Race Restrictive Covenants in Housing, Fisk University Press, 1947.

Education and the Cultural Crisis, Macmillan, 1951.

Bitter Canaan: The Story of the Negro Republic, Transaction Books, 1987.



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

Fabre, Michel, Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980, University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Fullinwinder, S. P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, Dorsey Press, 1969.

Harlem Renaissance Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, Penguin, 1994.

Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Mydral, Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Harper & Row, 1944.

The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited by Alain Locke, Arno Press, 1925.

Toomer, Jean, Cane, Harper & Row, 1923.

Weiss, Nancy J., The National Urban League, Oxford University Press, 1974.

John Cohassey

Johnson, Charles S.

views updated May 11 2018

Johnson, Charles S.



Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893–1956) was a sociologist who did pioneering work in the field of human relations, a prolific writer, an editor, an adviser to governmental and philanthropic groups, and the president of Fisk University from 1946 to 1956.

A graduate of Virginia Union University, he received his sociological training at the University of Chicago, primarily through an unusual apprenticeship which he served under Robert E. Park. At the University of Chicago men such as Park, W. I. Thomas, and Ellsworth Faris were seeking to study race relations with the techniques of sociology, that is, as a specific problem in social interaction and collective action. They wished to study the character of racial and cultural contact in all cultures with heterogeneous populations, rather than just as a particular aspect of American society.

In view of the nature of his training at Chicago, it is not surprising that one of Johnson’s major sociological contributions was his demonstration that the emotion-ridden subject of race relations could be studied by sociologists from an objective and scientific point of view. His first major research in this field resulted in the classic work The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922). This work effectively combined personal documents and statistical data; it documented in an objective fashion the riot itself, the events leading up to it, and the misconceptions, misinformation, and attitudes upon which the events were based.

The bulk of Johnson’s sociological contributions was made during that period in which he served as chairman of the department of social sciences at Fisk University, 1928–1947. His sociological studies covered a wide range of Negro life, but he was perennially concerned with the depressed status of the Negro within American society and the implications of this status for the Negro’s personality development and for the nation’s image of itself as a democratic society. Johnson excelled in his ability to document the reactions of Negroes of varying socioeconomic classes to their racial status.

In Shadow of the Plantation (1934) Johnson related the social and cultural influences of the plantation to the social patterns and personality development of Negroes who lived in this type of agricultural situation. In The Negro College Graduate (1938), for which he received the Ainsfield award, he attempted to synthesize the social as well as the educational philosophy of the Negro college graduate. In Patterns of Negro Segregation (1943) he attempted to delineate the class structure of the Negro community and to describe the differential behavioral responses of the various classes.

Johnson’s concept of the “folk Negro” as a social category cutting across class lines was new, as was his critical view of the caste theory of race relations. In Growing Up in the Black Belt (1941) Johnson took issue with the then current view of some social scientists that race relations in America constituted a caste system. Unlike a caste system, the Southern race system lacked both religious sanctions and the mutual acceptance of a fixed status; it was also highly unstable, with Negroes constantly changing and redefining their own status in relation to whites.

Johnson was also noted for his ability to marshal facts effectively as an aid to the solution of practical problems. From 1943 to 1948 he edited the Monthly Summary of Events and Trends in Race Relations (later called Race Relations), a report that carried an interpretive account of the month’s events; it had developed out of a confidential assignment from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to write a monthly report on race relations.

Perhaps Johnson’s most influential practical contribution was his development of the “community self-survey of race relations,” a technique for allowing the people of a community to discover for themselves facts about human relations in the community. [SeeRace relations.]

Johnson rendered important services to the American government, and to various philanthropic foundations, social agencies, and international organizations. In 1930 he served as the American member of an international commission of the League of Nations that inquired into the existence of forced labor in Liberia. In 1946 he went to Japan as one of the advisers on the reorganization of the Japanese educational system. He also served as one of the social science consultants to the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the time of the historic United States Supreme Court decision on school segregation in 1954.

Before becoming chairman of the social sciences department at Fisk University, Johnson served as director of research and investigation for the National Urban League. At that time he established Opportunity, a journal of Negro life. This magazine, which contained sociological research, short stories, poetry, literary criticism, and graphic art, became during the 1920s a leading medium of expression in what has come to be called the “Negro Renaissance.”

In 1946 Johnson was appointed president of Fisk. Under his leadership the university became a national and international center for research and study, attracting some of the nation’s foremost teachers and scientists. It became the first predominantly Negro institution to meet Phi Beta Kappa’s qualification criteria.

Johnson was a prolific writer. At the time of his inauguration as president of Fisk, a bibliography compiled by the Fisk University library (1947) listed 17 books of which he was author or coauthor, 14 other books to which he had contributed chapters, and more than 60 articles. Although Johnson was not primarily a textbook writer, one of his major sociological contributions, The Negro in American Civilization (1930), became an influential textbook in the field of race relations.

Throughout his career Johnson received many honors, including honorary degrees from Virginia Union University and the University of Glasgow, as well as from Columbia, Harvard, Howard, and Lincoln universities. Edwin R. Embree in Thirteen Against the Odds said of him: “Charles Johnson has one of America’s great careers in scholarship and statesmanship” (1944, p. 70). His former teacher, Ernest W. Burgess, placed him as a social scientist of the first rank (1956, p. 321).

Preston Valien

[See also the biographies ofParkandThomas.]


1922 The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1930 The Negro in American Civilization: A Study of Negro Life and Race Relations in the Light of Social Research. New York: Holt.

1934 Shadow of the Plantation. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1938 The Negro College Graduate. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

1941 Growing Up in the Black Belt: Negro Youth in the Rural South. Washington: American Council on Education.

1943 Patterns of Negro Segregation. New York: Harper.


Burgess, Ernest W. 1956 Charles Spurgeon Johnson: Social Scientist, Editor and Educational Statesman. Phylon 17:317–321.

Embree, Edwin R. 1944 Charles S. Johnson: A Scholar and Gentleman. Pages 47–70 in Edwin R. Embree, Thirteen Against the Odds. New York: Viking.

Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., Library 1947 Charles Spurgeon Johnson: A Bibliography. Nashville: The Library.

Gardiner, George L. (compiler) 1960 A Bibliography of Charles S. Johnson’s Published Writings. With an Introductory Note by Anna Bontemps. Nashville: Fisk Univ. Library.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson

views updated May 23 2018

Charles Spurgeon Johnson

African American educator and sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893-1956) gave outstanding leadership to Fisk University and conducted important research on human relations and the problems of blacks in America.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson was born on July 24, 1893, in Bristol, Va., the son of a Baptist minister. His father's books on philosophy, history, and religion were sources of inspiration. He completed college at Virginia Union University in 1917, having been a student leader. Johnson received his bachelor of philosophy degree from the University of Chicago and pursued graduate work in sociology there. He married Marie Burgette in 1920; they had four children.

Johnson's distinguished and extraordinarily productive career as a sociologist began when he organized the Department of Research and Investigation of the Chicago Urban League in 1917. He was a member of the Committee on Race Relations, which reported on the Chicago race riot of 1919 in The Negro in Chicago (1922). In 1920, as director of research and investigation for the New York Urban League, he established the magazine Opportunity, a leading periodical during the "Harlem Renaissance" that inspired many young blacks. In 1928, he went to head Fisk University's sociology department; with unmatched vision, he made it internationally famous. He was president of Fisk from 1947 to 1956.

Meanwhile, Johnson published books, articles, book reviews, pamphlets, and chapters in books. His research and writing centered on African American life and culture and on race relations. Among his most outstanding books are The Negro in American Civilization (1930), The Shadow of the Plantation (1934), A Preface to Racial Understanding (1936), The Negro College Graduate (1938), Growing Up in the Black Belt (1941), Patterns of Segregation (1943), To Stem This Tide (1943), and Into the Mainstream (1947).

Johnson's profound grasp of sociology was recognized in his numerous positions: as member, International Commission of the League of Nations; secretary, Commission on Negro Housing of President Herbert Hoover's Conference on Homebuilding and Home Ownership; member, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Committee on Farm Tenancy; member, White House Conference on Children in a Democracy; president, Southern Sociological Society; one of 10 American delegates to the first session of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; one of 20 educators sent to Japan in 1946 to reorganize the educational system; and member, Conference on Science, Religion, and Philosophy. From 1944 to 1950 Johnson was director of race relations of the American Missionary Association of the Congregational and Christian Churches. In 1948 he served as a delegate to the World Council of Churches Assembly. He also lectured widely in America and Scandinavia.

In addition to the Harmon Award (1930) and the University of Chicago Alumni Citation for distinguished public service (1945), Johnson received honorary degrees from Virginia Union, Howard, Columbia, Harvard, and Lincoln universities, from Central State College, and from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He died on October 27, 1956.

Further Reading

A short autobiography of Johnson is in Louis Finkelstein, ed., American Spiritual Autobiographies: Fifteen Self-Portraits (1948). An account of him is in W.S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). Edwin R. Embree, 13 against the Odds (1944), contains a chapter on Johnson.

Additional Sources

Robbins, Richard, Sidelines activist: Charles S. Johnson and the struggle for civil rights, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. □

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