Conflicted Howard president halts students’ sit-ins: 1934
Mordecai Johnson was the president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 1926-1960, recruiting top quality faculty and turning the school into the pre-eminent African American university in the country. He is shown here in a photograph circa 1930.
After completing the elementary grades, Johnson left Paris, Tennessee to attend Roger Williams University in Nashville. Upon graduating from Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College) in 1911, his oratorical ability won him critical acclaim. In 1922 Johnson delivered a commencement speech during his graduation from Harvard University Divinity School, titled “The Faith of the American Negro.” He also received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Gammon Theological Seminary Atlanta, Georgia.
On June 26, 1926, at the age of thirty-six, Johnson was unanimously elected the eleventh president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., becoming the first African American to serve as the permanent head of that institution. Prior to his appointment, Johnson had served as professor of economics and history at Morehouse. He had also served earlier as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia.
During his tenure at Howard, Johnson appointed a number of people who became prominent scholars including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Charles Drew, Percy Julian, Sterling Brown and Charles Hamilton Houston.
When Houston was appointed dean of the Howard University Law School he began producing a generation of great civil rights lawyers, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Houston himself was the architect of the strategy that dismantled the Jim Crow laws and laid the groundwork for the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 by the United States Supreme Court.
Johnson was committed to the civil rights struggle, but was conflicted internally in how best Howard could serve that end.
In 1931 he was accused of being a communist and some trustees threatened to fire him. In 1933, he came under attack from southern Democratic members of Congress also for being a communist who threatened to cut off Howard’s federal funding.
Johnson weathered the storm, but he made the decision then to place the well being of the institution above any individual fight.
In 1934 when 30 Howard students challenged Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol restaurants during the first organized ongoing sit-ins in the city, Johnson brought them before the faculty disciplinary committee for expulsion or suspension.
The committee chair Ralph Bunche prevailed in his recommendation of no discipline, but student activism at that time was quashed.
Similarly, a 1943-44 campaign by Howard students to end Jim Crow at Washington, D.C. restaurants using the sit-in tactic was halted by Johnson just as it appeared on the verge of victory.
Johnson dramatically expanded the campus with no buildings and increased enrollment from 2,000 in 1926 to 10,000 when he retired in 1960.
In Johnson’s last year, Howard students seized on the Greensboro, N.C. sit-in to stage their own desegregation sit-ins in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Arlington, Va. and Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland.
For a detailed blog post on the fight against Jim Crow at the U.S. Capitol’s restaurants, see washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2018/02/26/origins-of-the-c...
For related images, see flic.kr/s/aHsmcArGZz
Photo by Addison Scurlock. The image is a Scurlock Studio photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History: Archives Center.