In the fall of 1946, sociologist and professor Charles S. Johnson was named the first Black president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Unlike the militant style of W.E.B. Du Bois, Johnson employed an intellectual approach in dismantling racism by hoping to understand its roots.
Charles Surgeon Johnson was born July 24, 1893 in Bristol, Va. A biographer noted that Johnson studied segregation and its effect on Black people due to his own experiences with Jim Crow. Johnson studied undergrad at Virginia Union University, and then did graduate studies at the University of Chicago.
Johnson’s research of the Red Summer of 1919 race riots led to his acclaimed “The Negro in Chicago” report. Working with the National Urban League, the study elevated him to the role of the NUL’s director of research in 1921. In 1923, Johnson established Opportunity magazine, which took a broad look at the African-American experience nationwide.
In 1928, Johnson was named the chairman of the newly opened social studies department at Fisk. He helped to create the Fisk Institute of Race Relations, reportedly the first think tank at an HBCU. By most accounts although some dates vary, Johnson was named president of Fisk in 1946 and began reaching out to white liberal groups for funding and goal alignment. This drew criticism from the likes of Du Bois but Johnson remained undeterred.
In 1956, the Alpha man suffered a heart attack while traveling and died suddenly at the age of 63 just as the school began to thrive under his guidance and leadership.
His grandson, Jeh Johnson, served as the Secretary for Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, the first Black person to do so.
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