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
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.