Georgia Douglas Johnson

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper Maureen Honey 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

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Maureen Honey

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.