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