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Georgia Douglas Johnson's Life and Career

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.

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