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Mordecai Wyatt Johnson

the first permanent African-American president of Howard University

Mordecai Johnson

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was born in Paris, Tennessee, on January 12, 1890, the son of a preacher. He received his primary education from the local schools, and then attended Roger Williams University (Nashville, Tennessee) and the Howe Institute (Memphis, Tennessee). In 1911 he received his Bachelor's degree from Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College), where he was not only an accomplished orator and debater but a star athlete in three sports as well. He subsequently taught history, English and economics at the college until 1913, when he received his second Bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago.

From Chicago, Johnson moved to Rochester, New York, where he served as a pastor while earning his Bachelor of Divinity degree from the Rochester Divinity School. Ordained as a Baptist minister in 1916, he subsequently became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charlestown, West Virginia, where he served from 1917 to 1926. During his tenure in Charlestown, Johnson founded a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as a Rochdale Cooperative, from which parishioners and members of the community could purchase supplies at reduced prices.

In 1921, Johnson took a leave of absence from his church in order to attend Harvard Divinity School, from which he received his Master of Sacred Theology degree in 1922. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Howard University in 1923, and another Doctor of Divinity degree from the Gammon Theological Seminary in 1928.

President of Howard University

In 1926, Johnson became the first permanent African-American president of Howard University, the largest predominantly Black university in America. At the time Johnson assumed the office, the university consisted of eight schools and colleges, none of which were nationally accredited, had an enrollment of 1,700, and a budget of $700,000. Johnson immediately set out to make dramatic improvements to the university, improvements which would take a tremendous influx of money. In 1928, he successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation providing annual support to the university, and was rewarded by the NAACP with its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, the following year. With this funding Johnson was able to make Howard University into one of the most prominent universities in the country. When he retired in 1960, Howard had grown to ten schools and colleges, all of which are still fully accredited, had an enrollment of 6,000, and had a budget of $8 million. Johnson oversaw the addition of twenty new buildings, and greatly enlarged the faculty. Some of the most prominent black scholars of the day taught at Howard during Johnson's tenure, including E. Franklin Pierce (in sociology), Ralph Bunche (political science), Charles R. Drew (medicine), and John Hope Franklin and Rayford W. Logan (history). Charles Hamilton Houston, one-time dean of the Howard Law School, was the architect of the legal strategy that led to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision.

In addition to his work at Howard, Johnson was also a noted and respected orator who traveled some 25,000 miles a year speaking on racism, segregation, discrimination, and other social issues. In 1951, he was a member of the American delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in London, where he pleaded for the favored nations to consider the plight of the underprivileged and dispossessed people of the world and stressed the need for the sense of justice that nations should display with those under their domination.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson died in Washington, D.C., on September 10, 1976.


Black Past

See Also

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Ralph Bunche
Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

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This page was last updated on January 12, 2019.