’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Georgia Douglas Johnson made her way to
Washington, D.C., where she lived for over fifty years at 1461 S Street NW, site of one of
the greatest literary salons of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson was the most famous woman
poet of that literary movement, publishing four volumes of poetry: The Heart of
a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), An Autumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share
My World (1962).
Johnson’s life illustrates the difficulties faced by African American women writers in
the first half of the century. A graduate of Atlanta University (1896), where she met her
husband, Henry Lincoln Johnson, Georgia Douglas Johnson did not publish her first poem
until 1916, when she was thirty-six, and she remained geographically removed from the
major literary circles of her day, which were in Harlem, due to her marriage to a
Washington lawyer and civil employee. Her husband, moreover, expected her to look after
the home and assume primary responsibility for the upbringing of two sons. When he died in
1925, Georgia Douglas Johnson was forty-five years old with two teenagers to support.
Holding a series of temporary jobs between 1924 and 1934 as a substitute public school
teacher and a file clerk for the Civil Service, she ultimately found a position with the
Commissioner of Immigration for the Department of Labor, where hours were long and pay
low. Johnson had to create her own supportive environment by establishing the Saturday
night open houses that she hosted weekly soon after her husband’s death and that included
Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and others.
Although it was hard for her to write, she was able to follow through on her successes
with her first two volumes of poetry by completing a third volume in 1928 that is arguably
her best. An Autumn Love Cycle confirmed Johnson as the first African American
woman poet to garner national attention since Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Johnson
traveled extensively in the late 1920s, giving lectures and readings, meeting Carl
Sandburg in Chicago and Charles Waddell Chesnutt in Cleveland while receiving awards from
various organizations, including her alma mater, Atlanta University. She was able to send
her sons to Howard University, where they studied law and medicine, while maintaining a
demanding work and travel schedule.
Through the pioneering work of Gloria Hull, we now know that Johnson wrote a
substantial number of plays during the 1920s, including Plumes, which won first
prize in a contest run by Opportunity in 1927, and Blue Blood, performed by
the Krigwa Players in New York City during the fall of 1926 and published the following
year. Twenty-eight dramas are listed in the "Catalogue of Writings" that Johnson
compiled in 1962-1963, but only a handful have been recovered. She also listed a
book-length manuscript about her literary salon, a collection of short stories, and a
novel, which were lost as well. Of thirty-one short stories listed in her catalog, only
three have been located, under the pseudonym of Paul Tremaine (two of these were published
in Dorothy West’s journal Challenge in 1936 and 1937). Probably much of this
material was thrown away by workers clearing out Johnson’s house when she died in 1966.
Georgia Douglas Johnson’s prolific writing career also included a weekly newspaper
column, "Homely Philosophy," that was syndicated by twenty publications from
1926 to 1932; a collaboration with composer Lillian Evanti in the late 1940s that made use
of Johnson’s earlier music training at Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland College of
Music; and an international correspondence club that she organized and ran from 1930 to
1965. Her writing was seriously curtailed by the loss of her Department of Labor job in
1934. She then sought any work she could get, including temporary jobs in a clerical pool,
while vainly applying for axis fellowships. As late as the 1960s, Johnson was still
applying for fellowships that never materialized. Able to survive by living with her
lawyer son, Henry Lincoln, Jr., and his wife, Johnson never lost her enthusiasm for the
arts nor her generosity to needy artists who came her way. She called her home
"Half-Way House" to represent her willingness to provide shelter to those in
need, including, at one point, Zora Neale Hurston. The rose-covered walk at 1461 S Street,
created by Johnson fifty years ago, still stands in testimony to the many African American
artists she welcomed and to the love poetry for which she is best known. Struggling
without the material support that would have helped bring more of her work to light and
battling racist stereotypes that fed lynch mobs and race riots in the formative years of
her life, Georgia Douglas Johnson left a legacy of indomitable pride and creative courage
that has only begun to be understood.
See also: Erlene Stetson, ed., Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women,
1746-1980, 1981. Gloria T. Hull, Color Sex, and Poetry. Three Women Writers of the
Harlem Renaissance, 1987. Ann Allen Shockley, ed., Afro-American Women
Writers, 1746-1933, 1988. Maureen Honey, ed., Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry
of the Harlem Renaissance, 1989. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, ed., Wines in the
Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, 1990.
Lorraine Elena Roses and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. eds., Harlem, Renaissance, and
Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Black Women Writers, 1900-1945, 1990.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L.
Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press,
1997. Copyright ? 1997 by Oxford University Press.