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

Posted on 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.