Profiling Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, The First Black President At Howard University



Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was an African American educator, preacher, administrator, and public speaker who was born in Paris, Tennessee on January 4, 1891. He was the son of former slave Reverend Wyatt J. Johnson. Johnson learned the muscle of self-determination, discipline, scholarship, and integrity from his parents. His father, a minister and laborer, was a stern man who had worked for forty years at a mill six days a week, twelve hours a day. Carolyn, his mother, balanced his father’s firmness with patience and nurturing for her only child.

Johnson left Paris, Tennessee, after finishing primary school, to attend Roger Williams University in Nashville. His oratory talents earned him significant praise after graduating from Atlanta Baptist College (and later Morehouse College) in 1911. Mordecai delivered a commencement speech titled “The Faith of the American Negro” during his graduation from Harvard Divinity School in 1922. He also holds a Doctor of Divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia.

Johnson was overwhelmingly elected the eleventh president of Howard University on June 26, 1926, at the age of 36, becoming the first African-American to serve as the institution’s permanent head. Mordecai was a Morehouse professor of economics and history prior to his appointment. He had also previously served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. Johnson appointed a number of people who went on to become notable scholars during his stay at Howard.

Alain Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar and Harvard University PhD holder; Ralph Bunche, professor of political science and later a Nobel Laureate; Charles Drew, who perfected the use of blood plasma; Percy Julian, a noted chemist; and Sterling Brown, a professor of English and a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, were among them. Johnson’s most significant appointment was Charles Hamilton Houston as Vice-Dean and eventually Dean of the Howard University Law School in 1929.

Houston was the architect of the strategy that dismantled Jim Crow laws and laid the groundwork for the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1954.

Mordecai Johnson raised millions of dollars for new buildings and educational upgrades on the Howard campus. During his tenure, National Honor Societies such as Phi Beta Kappa were established on the Howard University campus. Johnson elevated Howard University to national prominence and served as its president for more than three decades (34 years, to be exact), from 1926 to 1960.

During this time, Howard University’s enrollment grew from two thousand in 1926 to more than ten thousand in 1960. Under the Johnson Administration, the number of faculty at Howard University tripled and faculty salaries doubled, Congressional appropriations increased to $6,000,000 per year, and Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital trained half of the country’s African-American physicians.

Dr. Johnson’s most significant accomplishment was the establishment of the University’s Law School as the primary source of civil rights attorneys and law professors, including future United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He had a significant impact on Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolent resistance.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson died on September 10, 1976, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 86. He was survived by his wife, Anna Ethelyn Gardner, and five children.

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