Charles Spurgeon Johnson, grandfather of new Secretary of Homeland Security nominee

Posted October 22nd, 2013 by

Last week, President Obama nominated a new Secretary of Homeland Security to succeed Janet Napolitano, who resigned the position in August. Jeh Johnson, the president’s nominee, is a former Department of Defense lawyer and has been a trusted adviser to Obama on issues of national security. Most profiles of him in the news this week have mentioned that his grandfather, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, was a Harlem Renaissance figure and sociologist, but as his grandson moves into the national spotlight, now seems like a great time to bring out the fascinating life and work of this lesser-known historical figure.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s decades-long career as a sociologist is interwoven from the very beginning with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund. It begins in 1919, during the Chicago Race Riot. After serving overseas in World War I, Johnson returned to Chicago and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago. Just days after marching in a military parade for black veterans, Johnson witnessed the outbreak of the riot on his way home from the Chicago Urban League office. As Rosenwald Fund official Edwin Embree describes in 13 Against the Odds, Johnson made his way through rioting crowds to his apartment and immediately sat down and began outlining what would become his first great work of sociology, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.

The Negro in Chicago was a product of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, a board made up of local businessmen. One of its most prominent members was Julius Rosenwald, who early on during the riot had pushed a reluctant Mayor Bill Thompson to restore peace. Rosenwald had also made some incisive comments about the root causes of racial antagonism in Chicago to reporter Carl Sandburg, some of which foreshadowed his later interest in improving housing for African Americans. Johnson, acting as Associate Executive Secretary of the CCRR, wrote the majority of its report, illuminating how Chicago’s systematic exploitation of new African American arrivals to the city (as part of the Great Migration) coupled with housing segregation and employment discrimination had led its citizens to violently riot in the streets.


Charles Spurgeon Johnson in 1948
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten collection

A decade later, when the Rosenwald Fund began its syphilis control demonstration (a very different project than the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as James Jones explained in our interview with him last month) they tapped Johnson to study the outcomes, efficacy and future potential for the kind of treatment program they had demonstrated in six rural southern communities. Johnson received a Rosenwald fellowship in 1930 and began working for the Rosenwald Fund in this capacity in 1931. While the Fund’s involvement in syphilis treatment ended in 1933, Johnson’s field work in Macon County, Alabama became the basis of his Shadow of the Plantation, a classic sociological study of the lingering effects of slavery on southern communities.

Johnson is perhaps best known for being the president of Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville that was home to the Rosenwald Fund’s southern offices. Initially hired by Fisk because of his behind the scenes work promoting Harlem Renaissance authors and artists, he was a professor of sociology for twenty years before becoming president in 1948. At Fisk, he wrote many important sociological studies, including Shadow of the Plantation (1934) and Growing up in the Black Belt (1941). According to Sarah M. Howell of Middle Tennessee State University, in 1944 the Rosenwald Fund helped Johnson put on a series of Race Relations Institutes. These were conferences on the state of race relations held at Fisk University and attended by scholars from all over the nation. As chair of the Department of Sociology at Fisk, Johnson also worked with Edwin Embree, head of the Rosenwald Fund, to produce The Monthly Summary, a publication that documented race relations in communities nationwide. Johnson was a close adviser to Embree, and he was often consulted when the Fund was considering fellowship candidates.

It may seem surprising that such an influential researcher is not more well-known, but Johnson seems to have purposely avoided the spotlight during his career. Johnson’s dedication to studying and improving race relations must have been an influence on his grandson, who was born 11 months after his death. If Jeh Johnson is as perceptive and driven as his grandfather, he will make an excellent public servant.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson, grandfather of new Secretary of Homeland Security nominee

Posted October 22nd, 2013 by

Last week, President Obama nominated a new Secretary of Homeland Security to succeed Janet Napolitano, who resigned the position in August. Jeh Johnson, the president’s nominee, is a former Department of Defense lawyer and has been a trusted adviser to Obama on issues of national security. Most profiles of him in the news this week have mentioned that his grandfather, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, was a Harlem Renaissance figure and sociologist, but as his grandson moves into the national spotlight, now seems like a great time to bring out the fascinating life and work of this lesser-known historical figure.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s decades-long career as a sociologist is interwoven from the very beginning with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund. It begins in 1919, during the Chicago Race Riot. After serving overseas in World War I, Johnson returned to Chicago and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Chicago. Just days after marching in a military parade for black veterans, Johnson witnessed the outbreak of the riot on his way home from the Chicago Urban League office. As Rosenwald Fund official Edwin Embree describes in 13 Against the Odds, Johnson made his way through rioting crowds to his apartment and immediately sat down and began outlining what would become his first great work of sociology, The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.

The Negro in Chicago was a product of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations, a board made up of local businessmen. One of its most prominent members was Julius Rosenwald, who early on during the riot had pushed a reluctant Mayor Bill Thompson to restore peace. Rosenwald had also made some incisive comments about the root causes of racial antagonism in Chicago to reporter Carl Sandburg, some of which foreshadowed his later interest in improving housing for African Americans. Johnson, acting as Associate Executive Secretary of the CCRR, wrote the majority of its report, illuminating how Chicago’s systematic exploitation of new African American arrivals to the city (as part of the Great Migration) coupled with housing segregation and employment discrimination had led its citizens to violently riot in the streets.


Charles Spurgeon Johnson in 1948
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten collection

A decade later, when the Rosenwald Fund began its syphilis control demonstration (a very different project than the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, as James Jones explained in our interview with him last month) they tapped Johnson to study the outcomes, efficacy and future potential for the kind of treatment program they had demonstrated in six rural southern communities. Johnson received a Rosenwald fellowship in 1930 and began working for the Rosenwald Fund in this capacity in 1931. While the Fund’s involvement in syphilis treatment ended in 1933, Johnson’s field work in Macon County, Alabama became the basis of his Shadow of the Plantation, a classic sociological study of the lingering effects of slavery on southern communities.

Johnson is perhaps best known for being the president of Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville that was home to the Rosenwald Fund’s southern offices. Initially hired by Fisk because of his behind the scenes work promoting Harlem Renaissance authors and artists, he was a professor of sociology for twenty years before becoming president in 1948. At Fisk, he wrote many important sociological studies, including Shadow of the Plantation (1934) and Growing up in the Black Belt (1941). According to Sarah M. Howell of Middle Tennessee State University, in 1944 the Rosenwald Fund helped Johnson put on a series of Race Relations Institutes. These were conferences on the state of race relations held at Fisk University and attended by scholars from all over the nation. As chair of the Department of Sociology at Fisk, Johnson also worked with Edwin Embree, head of the Rosenwald Fund, to produce The Monthly Summary, a publication that documented race relations in communities nationwide. Johnson was a close adviser to Embree, and he was often consulted when the Fund was considering fellowship candidates.

It may seem surprising that such an influential researcher is not more well-known, but Johnson seems to have purposely avoided the spotlight during his career. Johnson’s dedication to studying and improving race relations must have been an influence on his grandson, who was born 11 months after his death. If Jeh Johnson is as perceptive and driven as his grandfather, he will make an excellent public servant.

Rosenwald Courts funding package approved

Posted October 16th, 2013 by

The rehabilitation of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments moved one step closer to reality on Friday. The package of grants, tax-free bonds, tax credits and TIF funds proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September to help finance the construction of over 200 affordable apartments was approved at the Finance Committee meeting on October 11th. 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell posted a press release on the front page of her website, which you can read here.

It’s great to see this project finally coming together. Stay tuned to this blog for more updates.

Rosenwald Courts funding package approved

Posted October 16th, 2013 by

The rehabilitation of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments moved one step closer to reality on Friday. The package of grants, tax-free bonds, tax credits and TIF funds proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September to help finance the construction of over 200 affordable apartments was approved at the Finance Committee meeting on October 11th. 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell posted a press release on the front page of her website, which you can read here.

It’s great to see this project finally coming together. Stay tuned to this blog for more updates.

Chicago to have a school named for Jesse Owens again

Posted October 7th, 2013 by

According to an article in Chicago Sun-Times Chicago will once again have a school named for one of its most famous residents, Olympian Jesse Owens. In June, a school named for Owens in the far South Side community of West Pullman closed to consolidate with another school, which is named for Samuel Gompers. It’s expected that the city’s Board of Education will take the Gompers local school council’s recommendation to rename the consolidated Gompers school for Owens.

The Sun-Times story includes quotes from Owens’ daughter, Gloria Owens Hemphill, who was dismayed when the original Owens school closed and is happy to see that he will be honored once again. Hemphill recalled that, to her father, “every child was a champ, all they needed was the opportunity to be one.”


Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in 1936
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Those comments echoed what Chicago historian Timuel Black told us while we were interviewing him about the Rosenwald Apartments, a large block of apartments built by Julius Rosenwald in 1929 that was home to many of Chicago’s black middle class at the time. Some of the famous people that made their home there were Robert Taylor, Joe Louis, Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens. Black described the remarkably close relationship Metcalfe, Louis and Owens had with the children in the neighborhood. While working out in nearby Washington Park, Black said, Owens and Metcalfe would run alongside the kids. “For those of my generation,” Black said, they were “like our big brothers.”


Timuel Black
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, 2011

Click here to read more at the Sun-Times.

Stay at the “Rosenwald Suite Retreat”

Posted October 2nd, 2013 by

Welcome Inn Manor is a bed and breakfast located in a mansion on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, across the street from the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.

Among their lovely rooms is one named for the creator of that apartment block at 47th and Michigan, Julius Rosenwald. Colloquially known as “The Rosenwald,” the building was opened in 1929 and is in the process of being rehabilitated after standing vacant for decades.

Click to enlarge
Photo credit: The Welcome Inn Manor

The Rosenwald Suite is graced by an illustration of Julius Rosenwald on the wall. Mell from Welcome Inn Manor told us that it was created and gifted by a former guest, Ian Young. It appears to have drawn its source from a 1929 image of J.R. on the White House steps, seen here:


Photo credit: The Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection

Click here to book your stay in the Rosenwald Suite Retreat.

Ralph Ellison memorial in Harlem

Posted October 2nd, 2013 by

In a small, tranquil traffic island park next to tree-lined Riverside Drive in the western part of Harlem, New York, stands a memorial to the great writer of The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. The bronze sculpture is a large slab with the outline of a figure cut out of it, symbolizing the “universal, genderless” invisible man. After moving to New York in 1936, Ellison lived in a building across the street for much of his life.

The sculpture is by Elizabeth Catlett, an extraordinary teacher, sculptor and print-maker who died last year. She is probably best known for her series of prints called “The Negro Woman.” Although her work is on display in many major museums and galleries, this sculpture was her only commissioned work in New York when it was unveiled in 2003. Both Catlett and Ellison were Rosenwald fellows.

We were recently able to visit the memorial in person and take some photographs, which are posted below. The building pictured is 730 Riverside Drive, Ellison’s home. Be sure to click through the images to see larger versions. To learn more about the memorial click here.

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013

Click here to enlarge
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, September 2013