Isaac Theophilus Akunna Wallace-Johnson (1895-1965) was a West African trade union organizer, nationalist political leader, journalist, and pan-Africanist.
Isaac Wallace-Johnson was born of Creole parents in Wilberforce, Sierra Leone. Educated mainly in mission schools, he had to abandon secondary school in order to support his family. He worked in various commercial establishments until 1913, when he became a clerk for the colonial government.
Wallace-Johnson's talents as an organizer and public speaker quickly propelled him to a position of leadership. At the Customs Department, he organized the first trade union in Sierra Leone, among temporary customs officers. When he called for a strike in 1914, he was fired. He entered the British army in 1915 as a clerk in the Carrier Corps. Returning to Sierra Leone in 1920, he worked for the Freetown City Council but resigned in 1926 to serve on a United States merchant ship. He published The Seafarer, an occasional journal of maritime labor news, then joined the staff of the Lagos Daily Times.
Wallace-Johnson first came to the attention of the Moscow Comintern in 1930 at an International Conference of Negro Workers in Hamburg, Germany. After organizing the African Workers' Union in Nigeria in 1931, he and other black nationalist leaders were invited to the Soviet Union to attend the International Labor Defense Congress. He may have also enrolled briefly in the People's University of the East in Moscow under his favorite pseudonym, W. Daniels. Eventually, he became an associate editor of the Paris Communist publication Negro Worker, contributing articles under several pseudonyms.
Journalist and Organizer
Wallace-Johnson then moved to the Gold Coast to write for the African Morning Post of his friend Nnamdi Azikiwe and to organize workers in the mining areas. Identified by the British as an agitator and potential troublemaker, he was arrested, along with Azikiwe, for writing and publishing a seditious editorial. Convicted, he appealed and lost, then appealed to Great Britain's Privy Council.
In England, Wallace-Johnson attracted attention and support from leading British left-wing intellectuals and politicians. He also intensified his contact with George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, C. L. R. James, and others affiliated with the newly established International African Service Bureau. Wallace-Johnson became editor of Africa and the World and with Padmore, of the African Sentinel.
In April 1938 Wallace-Johnson returned to Freetown, intending to make his stay a short one. But customs agents seized 2,000 copies of the African Sentinel which he was bringing into Sierra Leone. The resulting publicity drew crowds to his series of public lectures. His oratory was brilliant, his targets well chosen, the population ready for leadership. Less than three weeks after his arrival, bolstered by a mass following, Wallace-Johnson inaugurated the West African Youth League, the first effective, large-scale political movement in Sierra Leone's history.
Supported by wage earners and the unemployed, the Youth League swept two elections in a row: the Freetown Municipal Council elections of 1938 and the Legislative Council elections of 1939. These successes, plus Wallace-Johnson's charismatic effect on the masses, his unrelenting exposure of labor exploitation, and his uncanny ability to discredit the colonial government, further angered British officials.
Fearing that Wallace-Johnson would foment disloyalty among African soldiers and policemen, the government enacted a series of ordinances in the summer of 1939 which severely limited his and other Sierra Leoneans' liberties. At the start of World War II he was interned as an "undesirable."
Upon his release late in 1944, Wallace-Johnson resumed his activities immediately. He was an influential spokesman at several international conferences, particularly the 1945 Manchester Pan African Conference. Within Sierra Leone, however, he entered a political cul-de-sac. The Youth League foundered, never regaining the momentum and following which it had lost during the war. Wallace-Johnson himself lost considerable popular support when he opposed the planned reconstitution of the Legislative Council to give majority representation to the protectorate. Although he was still respected and admired as a witty political critic, his stand on this issue denied him a major role in Sierra Leone's postwar independence movement. On May 10, 1965, at the age of 70, he died in a car crash in Ghana while attending the Afro Asian Solidarity Conference.
Further Reading on Isaac Theophilus Akunna Wallace-Johnson
There is no study of Wallace-Johnson as yet, but some information can be found in James Hooker, Black Revolutionary: George Padmore's Path from Communism to Pan-Africanism (1967). Wallace-Johnson's career is recounted in John R. Cartwright, Politics in Sierra Leone, 1947-67 (1970). Good background information is in Martin Kilson, Political Change in a West African State: A Study of the Modernization Process in Sierra Leone (1966).