Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Charles S. Johnson

1893-1956 / Scholar, editor

As the editor of Opportunity: A Journal for Negro Life (the official publication of the National Urban League), Charles S. Johnson was a leading architect of the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson's degree in sociology and his own personal experience had made him acutely aware of the barriers of racial bias.

Yet he also saw that certain circles of white society had begun to romanticize African Americans; black characters increasingly figured in books, and white patrons packed the seats of the Cotton Club. Believing that art and literature could lift up African Americans, Johnson launched the careers of promising black writers in Opportunity. He corralled some of these new voices in a literary anthology, Ebony and Topaz.

Airing such views was an important first step, but Johnson knew it could never guarantee change; to secure funding and publicity for the young artists and writers he admired, he would have to grab the attention of white philanthropists and mainstream publishing companies. In 1924, Johnson staged an elaborate dinner to ballyhoo the talents of Opportunity contributors. This was the first of myriad events the magazine would sponsor, including an annual literary awards celebration that grew in prestige with every passing year.

As part of Johnson's crusade to promote African-American art and literature, he kept a dossier on black writers of promise and invited each one to visit New York. Upon arrival, those who took him up on the offer were furnished with the phone numbers of key people and a couch at 580 St. Nicholas Avenue in Sugar Hill—the home of Opportunity secretary Ethel Nance. To maintain his standing as Harlem's cultural czar, Johnson asked Nance to inform him of her guests' activities, and learned about the latest goings-on from bibliophile and literature collector Arthur Schomburg.

Long after leaving New York in the late 1920s, Johnson continued to champion the cause of African-American advancement. As the first black president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, he arranged for James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas, and many other Renaissance men and women to find work at that college.