Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt

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Mordecai Wyatt Johnson

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (1890–1976) was one of the most highly respected clergymen, educators, and orators of his time. From 1926 to 1960 he was president of Howard University, where he made significant contributions not only to the university, but to the larger community as well.

The son of former slaves, Johnson was born on January 12, 1890, in Paris, Tennessee. His father, Wyatt Johnson, was a preacher and mill worker. He was a strict disciplinarian who set rigorous standards for his son's chores and behavior. His mother was a domestic employed by one of the prominent families in town. She was kind and gentle and demonstrated a keen interest in her son's education.

Johnson's formal education began in a small elementary school in his native town. From there he went to Roger Williams University in Nashville, then to Howe Institute in Memphis, and later transferred to the Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) where he completed his secondary and undergraduate education. During his college career, he was a member of the debating team and the Glee Club, a star athlete in three sports, and quarterback of the football team. Offered a faculty position at the college upon graduation, he taught English and economics and served a year as acting dean. He maintained a profound interest in economics throughout his career—an interest that was apparent in some of his major addresses. After one year of teaching, he continued his education at the University of Chicago, where he received a second A.B. degree, and at the Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York, where he earned the B.D. degree. At Rochester he was profoundly influenced by the great "social gospel" advocate, Walter Rauchenbusch. His experiences there made an indelible impact upon his thinking and his entire career.

After a brief stint as secretary of the western region of the Student Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), in 1917 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia, where he served nine years. During that time, he founded a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a Rochdale Cooperative, from which his parishioners and the community could purchase supplies at reduced prices. In 1921 he took a leave of absence from his church to study for a year at Harvard University Divinity School where he received the degree of master of sacred theology. At his graduation in June of 1922, he was chosen to represent the Graduate School at the university commencement. His speech on that occasion was entitled "The Faith of the American Negro." It resulted in his establishing a close relationship with Julius Rosenwald, the prominent philanthropist who was president of the Sears, Roebuck Corporation. Rosenwald was later to play a substantial role in helping Johnson realize some of his later administrative goals.

Became President of Howard University

At the age of 36, Johnson was elected the 11th, and the first African American, president of Howard University. He took the position in a crucial period in American history and especially in the history of African Americans. It was 1926 and the United States was enjoying the prosperity that had begun with the close of World War I in 1918. Business was booming and the economy was so strong that many thought progress inevitable. What was known as the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, with the creative talents of African Americans expressed in literature, music, and art.

Ever since the establishment of schools for freedmen by white missionaries from the North following the Civil War, most of these institutions had been headed by Caucasians, as had Howard from its inception in 1867. Johnson's election to the presidency was hailed with pride by the black community at large. But he found an institution that, in many ways, did not measure up to the standards associated with a first-class university.

Financial Stability First

Johnson's first major responsibility was to assure the financial undergirding of the university. Since 1879 Congress had given some subsidies to the school, but the amounts were by no means adequate to the need nor were they assured each year. Encouraged by Johnson's leadership and his vision for the university, Louis C. Cramton, representative from Michigan, and other sympathetic lawmakers pushed through Congress a law providing annual support. This act in 1928 was of monumental significance for the future of the university. In recognition of this development, the NAACP awarded Johnson the Spingarn Medal, its highest honor.

Johnson set out to raise the quality of each of the schools in the university, starting with the medical school, one of only two in the nation to which African Americans were admitted without prejudice based on race. His first financial goal was to raise $250,000 to match a challenge grant by the General Education Board (GEB) toward a new building and endowment for the medical school, and an additional $180,000 for equipment. With help from Rosenwald, the arduous solicitations of alumni, medical faculty members, and an additional grant by the GEB, Johnson was able to announce at his first commencement as president that the campaign had been successful.

Johnson's primary concern, however, was raising the standards of the law school. When he assumed the presidency, it was a night school taught by men whose primary occupation was the practice of law during the day. With the advice of Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court, Johnson made contact with top law schools for recommendations of their leading African American graduates to recruit for teaching at Howard. Brandeis pointed out that the bases for fighting racial discrimination were already embedded in the Constitution. What was needed, he said, was for lawyers to be prepared to base their arguments before the Court precisely upon the guarantees in the document. This proved to be significant advice not only for the development of the law school at Howard, but for affecting race relations throughout the country.

Johnson appointed Charles Hamilton Houston as dean of the law school. At the law school, attention was given to research and intense analysis of litigation involving civil rights that had been or might be brought before the Court. Johnson was determined to make the Howard Law School the matrix out of which progress in the welfare of African Americans could be achieved. His role in its development was one of his major contributions to American life.

Controversy and Criticism

The first half of Johnson's tenure at Howard was marked by controversy. There were those who felt that it was unconscionable for the board of trustees to select a Baptist preacher who had no terminal academic degree and very little experience as a teacher and administrator in higher education. They maintained that he was not qualified to lead a great university. Johnson's administrative style was a source of animosity exhibited by some of the faculty and staff at Howard. Some accused him of being a dictator, of having a "messianic complex," and of being unyielding in the positions he took. Indeed, in one of his sermons he expressed the view that God had chosen individuals for certain purposes from the beginning of time. It would not be surprising if he believed that God had chosen him for a special mission. At this point in the development of some segments of higher education, it was not unusual for the charge of dictatorship to be made against college presidents.

Certain faculty and staff members maintained a continuous barrage of derogatory charges against Johnson during the first half of his administration. He persevered without responding. Through all the controversy he had the confidence and support of the trustees in constantly raising the level of support and the standards of the university. He made fruitful contacts with the major foundations, especially the Julius Rosenwald Fund, GEB, and the Federation of Jewish Charities. At the same time, he was able to attract top talent. During his administration, it was said that at Howard was the greatest collection of African American scholars to be found anywhere. Alain Locke, a philosopher and a Rhodes Scholar from Harvard, and Ernest E. Just, the internationally famous cell biologist, were already on the faculty when Johnson came. Added to them were, among others, Ralph Bunche, professor of political science and later a Nobel Laureate; Charles Drew, who perfected the use of blood plasma; Percy Julian, a noted chemist; Rayford Logan, a leading historian and an authority on the Caribbean; Abram Harris, an outstanding economist; and Sterling Brown, professor of English and a noted poet.

Johnson raised millions of dollars for new buildings and for upgrading all of the schools. Each segment boasted a strong curriculum. National honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, were established on campus. In addition, salaries were constantly increased and a favorable working environment was established. Johnson prided himself on upholding the standards and principles of academic freedom. During the era of the Communist scare, the House Un-American Activities Committee conducted investigations of certain faculty members and programs. Because Johnson spoke out favorably on certain aspects of the Russian government, there were those who accused him of being a Communist or a sympathizer—an accusation that he firmly denied.

As an Orator

One of the outstanding orators of his time, Johnson had a phenomenal memory and could speak without notes for as long as 45 minutes, yet was able to hold audiences spellbound because of his engaging speaking style and the content of his message. He traveled 25,000 miles a year speaking principally on racism, segregation, and discrimination. Early in his career, he was frequently in demand to lead religious-weeks in colleges. He was the annual speaker on Education Night at the National Baptist Convention, USA, and a regular on the program at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston. In 1951 he was a member of the American delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that met in London. On that occasion he was selected to speak on behalf of his sub-committee at the plenary session of the gathering. He pleaded for the favored nations to consider the plight of the underprivileged and dispossessed people of the world and stressed the need for a sense of justice that the nations should display with those under their domination.

The Later Years

Johnson retired from the presidency of Howard University in 1960 after 34 years of service. He had brought the university a long way from where he found it in 1926. He had greatly expanded the campus, building a library and new structures for several schools within the university. Finances were sound. Enrollment increased from 2,000 in 1926 to more than 10,000 in 1960. In the larger world, some walls of segregation against which he had fought had begun to crumble.

Johnson married Anna Ethelyn Gardner of Augusta, Georgia, in 1916. To them were born five children: Carolyn, Mordecai Jr., Archer, William, and Faith. After her death in 1969, he married Alice Clinton Woodson, and settled in Washington, D.C. He died on September 10, 1976, at the age of 86, in Washington, D.C.


Boulware, Marcus H., The Oratory of Negro Leaders: 1900–1968, Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Butler, Jenifier Bailey, "An Analysis of the Oral Rhetoric of Mordecai W. Johnson; A Study of the Concept of Presence." Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1977.

Hill, Richard H., History of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, West Virginia, 1934.

Locke, Alain, The New Negro: An Interpretation, A. and C. Boni, 1925.

Logan, Rayford, Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867–1967, New York University Press, 1969.

McKinney, Richard I., Mordecai, The Man and His Message: The Story of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard University Press, 1998.

Muse, Clarence L., "An Educational Stepchild: Howard University and the New Deal," Ph.D. dissertation, Howard University, 1989.

Winston, Michael, Education for Freedom: The Leadership of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard University, 1926–1960. A Documentary Tribute to Celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Election of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson as President of Howard University. Howard University Archives, Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, 1976.

Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt

views updated May 23 2018

Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt 1890–1976

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was born on January 12, 1890, in Paris, Tennessee. His father, the Reverend Wyatt Johnson, was a former slave and mill worker, and his mother, Carolyn Freeman Johnson, was a housewife. In 1926 he became the first African-American president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., an institution with an enrollment of 2,268 students and 160 teachers. When he retired in 1960, the enrollment was in excess of 6,000. In 2006, benefiting from the momentum of Johnson’s guidance of thirty-four years, Howard University had 11,000 students and more than 1,000 teachers. It offered degrees in ninety-three different fields, including law, medicine, business, nursing, education, and communication. This is a range of instruction unmatched by any other of the hundred predominantly black higher education institutions in the nation.

Mordecai’s own eminence rested upon an unusually rich education. He earned a B.A. from Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) in 1911, another B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1913, a divinity degree from the same institution in 1920, and an M.A. in divinity from Harvard University in 1922. He gained distinction as a master orator while at Harvard, and over the years he become known as one of the nation’s top preachers as well as the president of its premier black educational institution.

In his 1926 presidential inaugural speech, Johnson shared his vision of the social-uplift role Howard University should play as “the first mature university organization to come to pass among Negroes in the modern civilized world.” In addition to a balanced undergraduate program, Johnson saw the schools of medicine, law, education and religion as having arisen “to meet definite needs of the Negro people.” In subsequent years under his leadership, the medical school would turn out half of the nation’s black physicians, nearly all of its lawyers, a disproportionate number of specialists in education, and trained ministers dedicated to “releasing their energies for constructive service to the common good.”

Johnson also was responsible for hiring such prominent scholars as the Rhodes Scholar and philosopher Alain Locke, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, the political scientist and future Nobel Laureate Ralph Bunche, the medical school dean Numa P. G. Adams, the pioneer blood-bank researcher Charles Drew, the economist Abram Harris, the historians John Hope Franklin and Rayford W. Logan, the theologians Benjamin E. Mays and Wallace Thurman, the school of education giants Charles E. Thompson and Allison Davis, and the law school dean Charles Hamilton Houston. The achievements of these scholars solidified Howard’s reputation as the “capstone” of black education. Thompson founded the Journal of Negro Education, Drew received international recognition for his work, and Mays’s leadership placed the Howard University School of Religion in the vanguard of black religious education, an achievement that led to his presidency of Morehouse College.

In addition to supporting the work of individual scholars, Johnson saw that Howard’s law school could be a national systemic catalyst in breaking the chains of “legal” racial discrimination and advancing African-American civil rights. Thus, Charles Houston, with John-son’s support, vastly improved the law school and stressed that African-American lawyers should look upon themselves as “social engineers.” Through mock trials, lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall and James Nabrit III developed and rehearsed the legal arguments crucial to the school integration cases of the 1950s, and the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Marshall went on to become the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Laying the foundation for the successful attack on official racism, the law school became the nation’s tutor in the field of civil rights. Nabrit was to succeed Johnson as president of the university.

Some were critical of what they termed Johnson’s “autocratic manner” on campus and his “messianic” complex when dealing with Howard’s adversaries off campus. Like most college presidents of his era, Johnson saw himself as the captain of a ship, with the faculty being his crew. His unrivalled authority was also a result of his success in 1926 in persuading the U.S. Congress to make Howard’s federal appropriation an annual part of the federal funding cycle, a situation that enabled him to contain conflicts and rivalries among some of black America’s most brilliant individuals. At the same time, Johnson’s belief in academic freedom shielded his faculty from the efforts of some legislators to curb this freedom, especially during the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, at time when many intellectuals were accused of being admirers of Stalin and Communism.

Some of Johnson’s outspoken political views also drew negative attention, but he was able to survive these attacks and become a world-recognized advocate for social justice, not only for African Americans but for the peoples of the underdeveloped countries of the world. For years he was the national leader and advocate for black education, and his sermons and public lectures were special events. He embodied in full measure Howard University’s motto of “Truth and Service,” and the university’s central administration building bears his name.


Bridglall, Beatrice L., and Edmund W. Gordon. 2004. “The Nurturance of African American Scientific Talent.” Journal of African American History 89 (4): 331.

Carson, Clayborne, Susan Carson, Kieran Taylor, and Adrienne Clay, eds. 2000. Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. IV, Symbol of the Movement, January 1957—December 1958. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McKinney, Richard I. 1997. Mordecai, The Man and His Message: The Story of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.

_____. 2000. “Mordecai Johnson: An Early Pillar of African-American Higher Education.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 27: 99–104.

Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. 1976. “Attorneys Black and White: A Case Study of Race Relations within the NAACP.” Journal of American History 62 (4): 913–946.

Muse, Clifford L., Jr. 1991. “Howard University and the Federal Government during the Presidential Administrations of Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1928–1945.” Journal of Negro History 76 (1/4): 1–20.

Urquhart, Brian. 1994. “The Higher Education of Ralph Bunche.” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 4: 78–84.

George Tamblyn

Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt

views updated May 21 2018

Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt

January 12, 1890
September 10, 1976

Born in Paris, Tennessee, Mordecai Johnson, an educator, received his first bachelor of arts degree from Morehouse College in 1911. A second B.A. came from the University of Chicago in 1913, followed by a bachelor of divinity degree from Rochester Theological Seminary in 1916 and graduate degrees from Harvard University, Howard University, and Gammon Theological Seminary. Johnson began his career teaching English at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

After leaving Morehouse, Johnson served as a Baptist minister in New York and in West Virginia, where he organized Charleston's first branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Never one to back down from an injustice, he was merciless in his attacks on what he called the "Jim Crow churches" of America and worked to integrate all denominations. A gifted speaker, Johnson traveled throughout the Southwest with the YMCA, making detailed studies of many black schools and colleges.

In 1926 Johnson was unanimously recommended by Howard University's board of trustees to serve as the school's first African-American president. Three years later he was honored as the fifteenth recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal. A fighter for equal rights, Johnson promoted a policy of academic freedom at Howard for both students and faculty. While president, he could be heard quoting the principles of Mohandas K. Gandhi to his students in the 1930s and rallying for African independence in the 1940s. In 1952 Johnson called for a nonviolent solution to the cold war that culminated in a peace mission to Moscow in 1959. On June 30, 1960, he retired as president of Howard. Thirteen years later, the university honored him with a building in his name. Johnson died in 1976 at the age of eighty-six.

See also Education in the United States; Howard University; Spingarn Medal


Low, W. Augustus, and Virgil A. Clift. Encyclopedia of Black America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

McKinney, Richard I. Mordecai: The Man and His Message. The Story of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Thompson, Charles H. "Howard University Changes Leadership." Journal of Negro Education 29, no. 4 (fall 1960): 409411.

michael a. lord (1996)
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