Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893-1956) was a preeminent sociologist, author, educator, and college president. He was known as the leader in making Fisk University the major Negro center for social research in the South and one of the outstanding research institutions in the entire field of race relations.
Born July 24, 1893 in Bristol, Virginia, Johnson attended Wayland Academy and college at Virginia Union University. While a student at Virginia Union University, Johnson served on the college debating team, was editor-in-chief of the college journal, president of student council, manager of the football and baseball team, member of the college quartet, a tennis player, and he finished his A.B. degree in 1916 after only three years. Johnson worked his way through graduate school at the University of Chicago’s renowned School of Sociology. While in school, he was Associate Executive Secretary for the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Race Relations in Chicago. Johnson took time away from school during World War I and was regimental sergeant major, infantry, A.E.F., U.S. Influenced at the Chicago School by Robert E. Park, an accomplished sociologist, Johnson obtained his Ph.D. and would continue to explore race relations throughout his lifetime.
In 1920, Johnson married Marie Antoinette Burgette (1891-1965) of Milwaukee. They moved to New York City where he became the National Urban League’s Director of Research and Investigations after having previously served in the same capacity for the Chicago affiliate. His first book, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot, was published in 1922. He also founded and became editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, the official organ of the National Urban League.
From 1928 to 1947, Johnson served as a professor of sociology, founder of the Social Center, the Director of the Department of Social Science, and the Social Science Institute Director (later the Race Relations Institute) at Fisk University. He was also a member of many committees and boards, namely the following: National Committee on Children and Youth; President Hoover’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership (secretary); Sociology Committee of the Tennessee Valley Authority; President’s Committee on Farm Tenancy; editor of board, American Sociological Review; Findings Committee, Conference on Inter-American Relations in Field of Education; executive and planning committee, White House Conference on Children in a Democracy; chairman, executive committee, Southern Committee on the Study of Lynching of the Southern Sociological Society; trustee, Julius Rosenwald Fund; trustee, Bethune-Cookman, LeMoyne, and Tillotson Colleges; secretary-treasurer, Sociology Research Association; first vice-president and president, Southern Sociological Society; U.S. Advisory Commission on Japanese Education (a.k.a. U.S. Education Mission).
Johnson was also director of many boards and projects. From 1942-48, he served as Co-director of the Race Relations Program of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Simultaneously, he served as Director of the Race Relations Program of the American Missionary Association from 1943 to 1948 and Director of the Southern Regional Division, Negro Youth Study of the American Council on Education in 1946. His book on the historical-sociological conditions in Liberia, Africa, Bitter Canaan, was also published in 1946.
On October 29, 1946, Charles S. Johnson was elected president of Fisk University by the Board of Trustees. He succeeded Thomas Elsa Jones and became the first Black to serve in this capacity. He was officially inaugurated in November 1947.
During his presidency, Johnson remained active with other organizations. He served as a delegate for the United States to UNESCO, as a delegate for the World Council of Churches, and as a board member of the Bethlehem Center of Nashville. Johnson was the chairman of the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council and the director-at-large of the Board of Home Missions of the Congregational Christian Churches. In 1950, Johnson served on the President’s Board for Foreign Scholarships under the Fulbright Act and as a member of the Tennessee Committee Midcentury White House Conference on Children and Youth. He also became the co-editor for Race and Culture. From 195 to 1956, Johnson was the vice-chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and a consultant and Board of Trustees member to the John Hay Whitney Foundation. Johnson published his book, Education and the Cultural Crisis in 1951.
Johnson was an active member of the board of directors of the Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc. and a member of the board of governors of the American Association for the United Nations. In 1954, Johnson became a delegate to the Conference on Student Life and Education in the United States at the University of Chicago, and a member of the executive committee of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches. For six weeks in 1955, Johnson was a lecturer for the American-Scandinavian Foundation at the Universities of Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen. Also in 1955, Johnson became the first African American to serve as a member of the board of trustees of the American Cancer Society. Johnson received honorary doctorate degrees from Columbia University, Harvard College, and Glasgow University in Scotland.
Johnson and his wife had four children: Drs. Charles, Jr. and Robert Burgette; Patricia Marie; and Jeh Vincent. On October 28, 1956, Johnson died of heart failure in Louisville, Kentucky en route to New York for a Fisk University board meeting.