MORDECAI W. JOHNSON

MORDECAI W. JOHNSON

1890-1976

Mordecai W. Johnson, who as the president of Howard University pio¬ neered programs of African-American education, was born in Paris, Ten¬ nessee, into the family of a minister at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He studied religion extensively, earning a B.A. from Morehouse College by the age of 16, a B.A. from the University of Chicago, a Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) from Rochester Theological Seminary, a Master in Theology (M.Th.) from Harvard, and a Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) from both Howard University and Gammon Theological Seminary in 1928.

In 1926, Mordecai Johnson became the first African-American president of Howard University. He succeeded a man who had fired Alain Locke because Locke had wanted to make Howard a school driven by African-American cul¬ ture. Johnson made it his goal to equip African-American students for higher education.

He rehired Locke and invited the most esteemed African-American thinkers, including Charles Houston (see no. 55), Carter Woodson (see no. 43) and Benjamin Mayes (see no. 56) to teach. He doubled the size of the university’s libraries and added 20 new buildings to its campus.

“The Negro people have been with us here for 300 years….Now they have come to the place where their faith can no longer feed on the bread of repression and vio¬ lence. They ask for the bread of liberty, of public equality, and public responsibility. It must not be denied them.”

Johnson’s belief that America owed equal education, equal responsibility and equal respect to African-Americans was one that colored his entire 30-year tenure at Howard. He believed in the teaching of crit¬ ical analysis, he believed in the power of Christianity, and he believed, unlike Mar¬cus Garvey (see no. 46) and his supporters, that democracy was to be found in Ameri¬ ca, if each American took his place in its defense.

Under Johnson’s leadership, Howard grew into one of the nation’s most success¬ ful educational institutions for African- Americans. His goal was to prepare his stu¬ dents for equality and arm them with the skills of critical thinking and higher thought. Programs, like Locke’s envisioned African Studies program, were given the freedom to grow and influence a nation’s ideas of education.

Finally, there was anoth¬ er well-funded, highly esteemed school on the level of the famed Tuskegee Institute (see no. 24) and many Howard graduates are now among the new generation’s most influential NAACP and civil rights activists.