Make your own free website on

Home                             Art                             Literature                             Music

History and Charles S. Johnson in the Harlem Renaissance

Charles S. Johnson                           Black Workers and the City                             Works Cited


The opulent history of Harlem during the 1920’s was driven by political and economic circumstances in the US, world events, and changing attitudes of African-Americans about themselves and whites about African Americans.  Numerous historians feel that the Harlem Renaissance originated during World War I, the period from 1914 to 1918.  At this time, there was a great migration of southern rural blacks working as sharecroppers to northern industrial cities seeking employment in factories.  Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem, and promoted a back-to-Africa movement.  Anti-black riots occurred in East St. Louis, and Claude McKay published his first poem about the experience of black urban masses.  These events assisted in generating the intellectual movement in Harlem, but the Renaissance was not totally consummated until 1921.  The Volstead Act of 1921 resulted in the opening of illegal drinking establishments, bringing whites to Harlem, and the opening of the black jazz dancing musical Shuffle Along on Broadway also brought whites to Harlem.  Whites were interested in the speakeasies of the Harlem night life and the jazz dancing that presided in the clubs, eventually leading to their discovery of the exceptional artists and writers of the Renaissance.  African Americans began publishing books in great numbers at this time, and were seeing their art work in exhibitions at museums in the city.  Black musicians became especially successful because they gained a national audience through having their music played on the newly developed radio. 


Charles S. Johnson

    Born on July 24, 1893, Charles Spurgeon Johnson was the son of a Baptist preacher who taught Charles limitations on courage, and revealed to him the racial violence that inhabited their society.  Johnson received a doctoral degree in 1917 at the University of Chicago, where he was the director of research and investigation for the Chicago Urban League.  After serving in the army during the first world war, Johnson returned to Chicago in time to witness the race riot of 1919.  Having a profound interest in the event, Johnson submitted, to the Mayor of the City, a plan to study the causes of the riot.  The mayor embraced Johnson’s plan and appointed him as associate executive secretary of Chicago’s Commission on Race Relations. 
      In 1921, Johnson traveled to New York and founded Opportunity: A Journal for Negro Life, a magazine dedicated to arouse pride in previous black achievements and display inevitable greatness in the race’s future.  Johnson felt that in order to break down the racism barrier in the country, blacks’ talents in writing, painting, and performing should be exploited and used as a weapon against old racial stereotypes.  Charles Johnson used the black writers and artists of Harlem to pursue this goal, and supported the group through the Opportunity awards, prizes handed out annually in recognition to the great artists and writers of this group.
      Johnson traveled to Fisk University in 1927 to head the department of social research, where he devoted his time to the study of race relations.  His research was recognized nationally through his service on the National Housing Commission under Herbert Hoover and on the US Committee on Farm Tenancy under Franklin Roosevelt.  In 1946, Charles S. Johnson was chosen as Fisk University’s first black president, where he stayed until his death in 1953.  

Black Workers and the City

    Charles Johnson demonstrates his profound interest in the social aspects of society through publishing his research on the distribution of jobs to African Americans in New York City.  He observes the influx of the blacks to the city from the south and west Indies, and the negative effect that it has on native black New Yorkers.  The great migration, as many historians refer to it as, brings numerous rural black workers into the city, leaving them with menial jobs and a misconceived notion that blacks cannot perform any skilled labor.  Blacks are left with jobs entailing waiters, porters, messengers, elevator tenders, chauffeurs, and janitors, all jobs requiring little to no skill.  

Counting ChangeJohnson also notes that few blacks are ever employed as apprentices, in jobs that have contact with the public such as a salesman or representative, and in jobs in which blacks will be supervising whites.  When African Americans do hold these types of jobs in the city though, it is only because the white men are on strike and the blacks are used as strike breakers.  This further angers the white workers towards blacks and weakens the chances of social unity in America.  Johnson writes in his piece that blacks must organize into unions in order to gain respect in the work field and obtain better jobs, bringing in higher wages.  However, they do not unionize and he states meanwhile they drift, a disordered mass, self-conscious, but with their aims unrationalized into the face of new problems.  The Urban League establishment, which Charles Johnson heads, tries to assist with this problem, but until blacks begin to truly take initiative toward demanding better jobs, they will remain with the servile occupations of society.

Works Cited:

Bontemps, Arna.  The Harlem Renaissance Remembered.  New York:  Dodd, Mead & Co., 1972.

Diesman,Jill.  What was the Harlem Renaissance?.  April 2, 1998.  Northern Kentucky University.  January

    18, 2003.

Haskins, Jim.  The Harlem Renaissance.  Connecticut:  The Millbrook Press, 1996.

Johnson, Charles S.  "Black Workers and the City."  Harlem:  Mecca of the New Negro.  November 3, 1996.  

    University of Virginia.  January 13, 2003.

Lewis, David Levering.  When Harlem was In Vogue.  New York: Random House Inc.,  1981.
Mitchell, Reavis L.  Charles S. Johnson.  December 16, 1995.  African-American Members of the Tennessee

    General Assembly.  January 16, 2003

Back to Top

Home                                    Art                                     Literature                                    Music