Charles S. Johnson

Portrait of Dr. Charles Johnson, sociologist at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee [between 1935 and 1945]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Call Number: LC-USW3- 019352-C [P&P], Reproduction Number: LC-USW3-019352-C (b&w film neg.)

African American, Sociology, Education, Ethnography, Activism

Charles S. Johnson


Charles S. Johnson, born in Bristol, Virginia in 1893, was the son of Winnie Lee Branch Johnson and Rev. Charles Henry Johnson, an emancipated Baptist minister. He was educated at Wayland Academy in Richmond and earned both a BA in Sociology with honors from Virginia Union University (1916), and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago (1917). His plans to begin graduate studies at University of Chicago were interrupted in 1918 by military service during World War I, during which time he rose to the rank of sergeant-major.

Johnson returned to Chicago to work with the renowned sociologist Robert E. Park from 1919 to 1921 as a researcher for the Chicago Urban League. Completing a study for the organization, he investigated and analyzed the facts and causes of the Chicago Riot of 1919 in  The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922).  Moving next to New York, he became a key mentor during the Harlem Renaissance as the first national Director of Research and Investigation for the National Urban League (1921), and then as founder and editor of the National Urban League magazine, Opportunity.

In 1927, Johnson became chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk University, where he worked for the rest of his career. He led annual Race Relations Institutes, which were attended by national leaders and supported by the Rosenwald Fund.  Based in ethnographic research, these institutes were renowned for their series of research reports and community studies in the Deep South as well as credited for their influence on the development of Civil Rights strategies at the Highlander Folk School. The collaborative research teams led by Johnson interviewed formerly enslaved Tennesseans, documenting their life experiences and beliefs. They also mentored teams of scholars in ethnographic projects that served as models for future national research initiatives in formerly enslaved communities during the 1930s. In the 1940s, Johnson and his team documented Black folkways in Coahoma County, Mississippi, in collaboration with the Library of Congress. 

Johnson was awarded the William E. Harmon Gold Medal for Distinguished Service by African Americans in the field of science (1930). He was elected the first African American vice president of the American Sociological Society (1937), the first African American president of the Southern Sociological Society (1945-1946), and first African American trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund (1934). In 1947, Dr. Charles S. Johnson became the first Black president of Fisk University.  Over his long career, he advised three American presidents on education and civil rights, and was awarded five honorary doctorates (Virginia Union, Harvard, Columbia, Howard, and University of Glasgow in Scotland).

Among his publications of interest to folklorists are:

Shadow of the Plantation (1934)

Growing up in the Black Belt (1941)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)