Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was a son of former slaves who became Howard University’s first Black president, raising the academic standards of the vaunted institution over the course of three decades. Under Dr. Johnson’s leadership, Howard University became recognized as the premier African-American university.
Johnson was born December 12, 1890 in Paris, Tenn. to parents Wyatt and Carolyn, according to an earlier Howard University biography web page. Johnson’s father was a preacher and mill worker, while his mother worked as a housekeeper. An excellent student and athlete, Johnson completed high school at the Atlanta Baptist College, which is now known as Morehouse University.
Johnson graduated from the college in 1911, and was added to its faculty as a teacher and also served as its dean for two years. In the summer months while working at the college, Johnson attended classes at the University of Chicago and earned a second bachelor’s degree in 1913.
Between 1913 and 1916, Johnson studied at the Rochester Theological Seminary in New York. Johnson married Anna Gardner, and the couple had three sons and two daughters. For a short time, he served as pastor for the First Baptist Church of Charleston, W.V. Johnson became well-known for his speaking ability and work within the community.
Accounts vary but Johnson was recognized in 1922 by Harvard University and awarded a Master of Science in Theology. Other reports state that he studied at the institution’s divinity school, but the consistent thread is that Harvard’s degree was official. In four years time, he was named the 13th and first African-American president of Howard University.
For the next 34 years, Johnson guided the school to academic prominence and was able to amass funding from private donors and Congress to grow the school into a respected institution. Johnson’s tenacious focus on improving the standing of the school and its facilities included reaching out and hiring some of the Black Intelligentsia’s best scholars and educators to the faculty.
Dr. Ralph Bunche, Dr. Charles Drew, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and Charles Hamilton Houston were among some of the hires made under Johnson’s leadership.
Johnson stepped down from his post in 1960, and passed in 1976.