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spacer First African-American student left many legacies

by Bill Carey
Bishop JohnsonA half-century after he was the first African American to attend Vanderbilt University and nearly a quarter-century after he died, people talk about Bishop Joseph A. Johnson Jr. as if he were just here.

“ I’ve grown up hearing about him as if he were still alive because people talk about him that much,” said his granddaughter Cynthia Johnson Oliver. “Sometimes not a day goes by without someone telling me about how my grandfather inspired them to get their education or do what they are doing.”

Johnson began attending the Vanderbilt School of Religion in the fall of 1953 and received his bachelor’s degree from the school the next year. In 1958, after several years of taking classes while the minister of Nashville’s Capers Memorial Church, Johnson got his Ph.D. in New Testament theology from the Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Johnson went on to have a distinguished career in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. After leaving Vanderbilt, he became a professor at Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center. He later became dean of Fisk University, president of Phillips School of Theology, a Vanderbilt trustee and the presiding bishop in his denomination for Mississippi and Louisiana. Johnson died from a sudden illness in 1979, five years before Vanderbilt named its black cultural center after him.

Since Johnson attended Vanderbilt so long ago, there are very few people affiliated with the school with first-person memories of him. But there are many within the CME denomination, a Memphis-based entity that used to be called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. One of those is Othal Lakey, a CME bishop who says Johnson had a profound impact on his life.

“ I knew him very, very well,” said Lakey. “He was instrumental in helping me in my career and in helping me become editor of the Christian Index (the official CME publication). I’m not sure where I’d be right now if it weren’t for him.”

Lakey says Johnson was modest about the fact that he was the first black person to attend Vanderbilt.

“ He never bragged about it, but he was proud to have been the first and he was very high on Vanderbilt,” he said.

Lakey, who lives near Atlanta, says he did not know that Vanderbilt had named its black cultural center after his late friend. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “I wish I had known that, because I would have come by to see it.”

Johnson wrote seven theology books but didn’t write very much about his life (at least not for publication). Because of that, few anecdotes survive about how he got accepted to Vanderbilt and how he was treated when he was a student.

When he attended Vanderbilt, Johnson was much older than other students. He was 38 and had three children when first accepted to the University. By that time, he had become a minister, following the footsteps of his father because of a “consuming desire to help my race,” he once said. He had earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas College in Tyler, Texas and a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in theology from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. He was also president of the Phillips School of Theology in Jackson, Tenn. Given Johnson’s background, it remains unclear why Vanderbilt required Johnson to get a bachelor’s degree.

Johnson had also lived in Nashville before, working in 1938-39 as the minister of the Phillips Chapel CME Church. During that stint, he worked part time as a groundskeeper at Vanderbilt, according to members of his family.

Many years later, Johnson said that he first applied to Vanderbilt in 1952 “as a joke.” He was initially accepted, but then sent in his photo and the offer was withdrawn. Then, the next year, he received a call from the dean of the Divinity School (then known as the School of Religion) who told him that the Board of Trust had reconsidered his application.

“ The biggest problem in being black at Vanderbilt was getting in,” Johnson once said, according to a story in the Vanderbilt Alumnus. “After that I had few problems. Of course, too, I was older and in the graduate school.”

Lakey said Johnson carried himself with dignity at all times.

“ He had a presence,” Lakey said. “His accent was almost British and he was very articulate, very poised, and he always dressed immaculately.”

Nevertheless, Johnson was no doubt constantly reminded of the fact that he was the first black student on campus. Not only was he asked not to eat in campus dining facilities, but, under the custom of the era, he was also not allowed to eat in any off-campus dining facilities.

Oliver, who was 5 years old when her grandfather died, spoke about a year ago at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Cultural Center. Like her grandfather, she is now an ordained CME minister; and, like her grandfather, she is getting her Ph.D., in this case from Yale.

“ I’ve always been taught that my family really values education, and that’s one way in which his legacy has always been with me,” she said.

Joseph Johnson’s admission to the School of Religion was an experiment of sorts by Chancellor Harvie Branscomb and the Board of Trust. Johnson was accepted under a policy that allowed blacks to be admitted only to divisions of Vanderbilt that were unique to the Nashville area, such as the Law School and Divinity School. However, programs of the school that had counterparts at other African-American schools, such as the School of Medicine and undergraduate school, would not accept blacks.

Under the policy, as explained by Branscomb in his 1978 autobiography, Purely Academic, “Vanderbilt need not feel obligated to admit Negro students into degree programs already available to them in Nashville, namely at Fisk, Tennessee State and Meharry. Thus we would be able to say with some satisfaction that no Negro youth in our community had been denied because of his race or color an education for which he was qualified.”

Despite his acceptance to the Divinity School, however, Johnson had many restrictions placed on him that virtually no students would tolerate today. All African Americans accepted under Vanderbilt’s awkward policy of the 1950s were asked not to eat in campus dining halls or play intramural sports.

“ Fortunately, none of the early black students asked to live in a dorm, a problem that sent shudders through the whole Vanderbilt administration,” Paul Conkin wrote in his 1985 book Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt’s policy of only allowing African Americans into divisions of the schools unique to Nashville remained through the sit-in movement and the well-publicized expulsion of black divinity student James Lawson in 1960. The big change came two years later. Following the lead of several other private colleges in the South, the Vanderbilt Board of Trust in May 1962 voted to accept qualified African Americans in all schools. By the fall of 1964, when nine African-American undergraduates entered the school, Vanderbilt had a new Chancellor, Alexander Heard.

Bill Carey is the editor of Metro Pulse in Knoxville, Tenn., a Vanderbilt alumnus and the author of a forthcoming book about Vanderbilt history, “Commodores, Chancellors, and Coeds: A History of Vanderbilt University”.

Posted 2/12/03 at 10 a.m.