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Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (January 12, 1890- September 10, 1976) was an African-American pastor, educator, and civil rights activist. He was born in Paris, Tennessee, the son of former slaves.

In 1911, Johnson received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Atlanta Baptist College (now known as Morehouse College). In 1913, Johnson earned yet another Bachelor of Arts degree, this one from the University of Chicago. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1916, Johnson earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Rochester Theological Seminary in 1920, and a Master of Sacred Theology from Harvard University in 1922. Johnson delivered his Harvard class’s commencement address, titled “The Faith of the American Negro.” The speech, delivered before a mostly white audience, was reprinted later that year for a national audience in The Nation newspaper.

Johnson arrived in West Virginia in 1917 as pastor of Charleston’s First Baptist Church. His sermons often merged theology with issues pertaining to social justice, such as labor and race. While serving as pastor, Johnson was an active leader for the city’s African-American community. He maintained correspondence with Carter G. Woodson and was a member of Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. In 1918, Johnson participated in protests to prevent the exhibition of the film The Birth of a Nation. Johnson was a charter member of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, and served as the branch’s first president from 1918 to 1921.

Johnson left Charleston in 1926 when he accepted the president position at the historically Black Howard University in Washington D.C., becoming the first African-American president of Howard and remaining in this role until 1960. On May 17, 1957, Johnson spoke at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in D.C., alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

From 1962 to 1965, Johnson was a member of the D.C. Board of Education. Following his death, Johnson was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.

This Article was written by Jeffrey Webb

Last Revised on August 05, 2021

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Sources

Staff, MSRC. "JOHNSON, MORDECAI." Manuscript Division Finding Aids. 106. Howard University, Washington, D.C.: 2015, https://dh.howard.edu/finaid_manu/106.

Edge, Thomas John. ""The social responsibility of the administrator": Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and the dilemma of Black leadership, 1890-1976." Doctoral Dissertations 1896 - February 2014. 930., University of Massachussetts, 2008.

Cite This Article

Webb, Jeffrey "Mordecai Johnson." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 August 2021. Web. 26 September 2021.

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