CHAPTER 19. AT HOME, 1944-1948

 

Vernon Johns in Farmville, 1943-1948

In Darlington Heights there is only one house left directly associated with the life of Vernon Johns. The story goes that one day Vernon, admiring the house, touched the white siding. The white owner shouted at Vernon: "Don't touch my house, nigger." Vernon vowed that one day he would own the house. And, indeed, the Johns family did gain ownership of the house. The Overton family owned the big house. The land had gone from the Elams to Singleton, to Sallie Overton, the mother, to the Overton family siblings and then to N. P. Miller (Prince Edward County Courthouse files). In a deed dated October 24, 1943 Altona Johns was granted the 100 acres of land by N. P. Miller and his wife B. M. Miller. Twenty-seven acres of this land was sold to Robert Johns, Vernon's brother.

At present, the house still stands. It can only be seen from the road in the winter because at all other times it is obscured by the leafy trees of the surrounding woods. Trees, including black walnut and hackberry, grow next to the house. A yard is still visible, but it is fast being overgrown with goldenrods and bottlebrush grass, along with bushes and small trees. The house itself is in very bad shape. It must have been a beautiful house at one time. It is a small Georgian structure. It has white shingles and a rusted tin roof. A central hallway leads from the raised front door straight through to the back door. Off the central hallway are two rooms on each side with separate openings into each of the rooms. Each pair of rooms on either side of the hallway are also open to each other. Each room has its own separate fireplace. There is a big hole in the front left room that extends down into the basement. There are tall windows nearly reaching the floor in both front rooms.

Hay has been stored here. It covers the floors, along with some corn cobs. Mud dauber nests cover many of the walls. Stairs lead from the middle of the hallway (because this is a smaller house than a typical Georgian colonial mansion) up to a second floor. The stairs are still solid but the railing is wobbly. From the second floor another staircase leads to a third floor. Here are two big rooms separated by a wall but connected by a door. The ceiling is very low, only six feet or so. There is a small attic. A big hole in the roof over the far left side of the house     stands over another big hole in the left third floor bedroom. Ceiling sheet rock has fallen to the floor all over the place.                                                                                                                 

Vernon Johns filled out an alumni form for Oberlin College on November 20, 1947. He wrote that "Since 1944 my time has been taken by Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. conferences and as guest speaker for "Weeks of Prayer," etc. at various colleges for inter-racial meetings, and by writing for various periodicals." He also noted that his wife was music teacher at R. R. Moton High School in Farmville.

According to Taylor Branch (1988:10) "When the economy recovered in the 1940s, Johns went back on the college lecture circuit. He spoke to chaplains, historians, and even economists, plus the usual run of theologians.

University officials would answer a summons to his ‘office' only to find him at a phone booth in the bus station. Student emissaries, on chauffeuring Johns to the president's guest residence at the university, would ask for his bag and he handed just that -- a paper bag from a grocery store, filled with books, underwear, and a semi- fresh shirt."

In June 1943 at Virginia Union University in Richmond there was a Ministers' Wives Conference. It was the third annual conference of the National Association of Ministers' Wives, June 29-30. The theme of the conference was "Helping Our Youth Through the Present Day Crisis." Vernon Johns was one of the speakers.

Back in Farmville, Altona continued her work in music. In 1944 she published a book entitled Play Songs of the South, through Associated Publishers, Washington D.C. It was illustrated by James A. Porter and of thirty-three pages.

An announcement in the paper (J&G December 11, 1943:16) mentioned that casting had begun for the annual Christmas play at R. R. Moton High School. The play, "The Light Still Shines," was to be given by students on December 21 and directed by Mrs. L. R. Pervall, while Mrs. A. T. Johns supervised the music.

"Race celebrates freedom before it is won," Vernon Johns told an Emancipation audience in Charlottesville, Virginia (J&G Jan. 13, 1945:3). Johns, guest speaker at the annual celebration sponsored by the ministers and teachers of Charlottesville, drew repeated applause at the First Baptist Church when he told an Emancipation audience that Negroes were celebrating their freedom before freedom had been attained for the colored citizens of America. "For almost a century now we have been celebrating our Emancipation when, in reality, our Emancipation has not been won. A Negro who calls these conditions in which we live freedom does not deserve to be free. He has disqualified himself for freedom in one of two ways: either by not desiring freedom or else by not knowing what freedom is. " The speaker urged that his listeners remember two important facts, first, that American Negroes would have to adopt a philosophy of life that would manage fear and that the race must learn that the things owned together are more important than the things owned separately.

A large crowd came out on Sunday to hear Vernon Johns of Farmville at New Hope Baptist Church, Dallas Texas, pastored by Rev. Dr. Ora Locust Sr. Vernon Johns came here from Marshall, Texas, where he was guest speaker at the L. K. Williams Ministers' Institute held at Bishop College (J&G May 10, 1947:3&12). The four-day institute meeting dealt with problems facing the church. He spoke on Thursday evening, May 1, and on Friday morning, May 2. His theme at Bishop College was "The Efficient Church and the Kingdom of God on Earth." He discussed some of the weaknesses of the church as a social and spiritual agency and made a challenging appeal for the type of religious program and social approach to the problems with which the church must deal that will make the church a pioneering institution in the moral and spiritual advance of mankind.

A capacity audience heard Dr. Vernon Johns Sunday at 4 p.m. at Dunbar High School when the Hill City Teacher's Club presented him (J&G May 24, 1947:12). Introduced by C. W. Seay, the principal of the school, Johns talked on "Mud is Basic."

President Davis wanted Vernon Johns to speak to the college on January 25, 1948. However, Johns could not make the date. He telegraphed Davis on January 13 (WVSC archives) saying "Hate to miss it. Beaumont Texas on January 23. Please check plane or other transportation Beaumont to Charleston. Write results to Stowe Teachers College, St. Louis, Missouri at once. If possible in the circumstances book me. If not, pity me." Davis (January 16, 1948 WVSC archives) wrote saying that the plan was not doable and that "It seems that we must plan for your coming at some future date. I am delighted at your willingness to serve us."

Davis (February 17, 1948 WVSC Archives) telegraphed Johns asking "Will you accept invitation to deliver Men's Day address here on Sunday evening, March 7th. Will be able to take care of your liberal traveling expenses and offer modest honorarium. Wire reply collect." Mrs. Johns got the telegram and forwarded it to Vernon who was then in Dallas, Texas.

Rev. Johns was guest speaker Sunday morning, May 2, 1948 for the annual Womens' Day program at West Virginia State College (Yellow Jacket June 2, 1948:1). Dawson and McCorkle halls tied for the attendance award.

On January 31, 1948 the paper (J&G p. 16) reported that Johns had given the commencement address to the fifty-seven graduates of Stowe Teachers College for the mid-term on January 19. Johns charged that the Negro is still illiterate economically, socially and philosophically. The Negro "makes no attempt to manage his own basic necessities, but leaves that responsibility to a race which abhors his society. He is content like a farm horse to labor faithfully for his income under his boss's arrangement." The Negro's social illiteracy is evidenced in the fact that the Negro "has not sensed the importance of joint ownership" and he lacks "an appreciation of common wealth." He added that the Negro is "more concerned about $50 dollars of private possessions than a million dollars of public property." He further added that the "respectable" Negroes have "no sense of trusteeship, no fundamental social interest beyond their own families, society and local organizations."

Dr. Johns also contended that the black is still philosophically illiterate. "He fails to make a working adjustment to the tragic potentialities of life." He deplored the inclination of blacks to play safe in situations where boldness was the better policy. "The odd fellows of 1776 and 1860 who tried to play it safe are as dead as those who lived dangerously -- deader in fact. Old John Brown is the only man at his hanging who is still alive."

In June 1948 Johns delivered the commencement address at Atkins High School of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (J&G June 12, 1948:19). He spoke on "The Basis, Mechanics, and Goal of Education." He declared that "Success is due to hard work rather than genius, ability and perspiration rather than inspiration." Going further he stated that the tender mind would not suffice in today's world in which anything can happen. "The world is good for tender hearts but bad for tender minds.. . .The mechanics of education demands patience. This may be simply expressed in the person's ability to keep still and his capacity for timely exertion, commonly known as ‘work.'"

The Ouster of W. H. R. Powell, Sr. from Virginia Seminary

Rev. W. H. R. Powell was doing well in Philadelphia (J&G Jan. 20, 1945:5). Passing into black ownership was the vast edifice of the Church of the Holy Apostles of Philadelphia, one of the leading white Episcopal congregations in the country. It was acquired by the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church, Philadelphia, under the direction of Dr. Powell, for the sum of $87,000 dollars. The property, at 21st and Christian Streets, was one of the largest pieces of church property owned by the black church in America.

At the request of such outstanding pulpiteers as Drs. A. Clayton Powell Sr. of New York, C. C. Scott of Richmond, C. T. Murray of Washington, D.C. and J. C. Austin of Chicago, Rev. Powell offered for publication his first volume of sermons (J&G Feb. 7, 1945:8). The volume included a series of original treatments of the Twenty-third Psalm. The introduction was written by the Rev. Richard H. Bowling, pastor of the First Baptist Church, of Norfolk, for the past thirty years.

Rev. Powell was not doing as well in Lynchburg. For several years some of the trustees had urged the employment of a full-time president. The matter was tabled indefinitely five years previously when it was finally realized that the school was not in a good enough financial condition to pay the salary of a full-time president. In January (J&G January 25, 1945:2) the board of trustees rejected the recommendation of a special commission which set July 1, 1945 as the date to terminate the present arrangement. (It was decided that Dr. Powell must decide on the question of full-time status at Virginia Seminary by the close of the next school year.) Dr. W. E. Lee of Roanoke was chairman of the trustees and Rev. M. C. Allen the secretary (J&G Mar. 24, 1945:1). Some of the trustees felt it unwise to seek a full-time head and just as unwise for anyone to accept the offer, until the bonded debt of the school was paid. Hence, under the leadership and the suggestion of Dr. M. C. Allen, a debt clearing campaign was launched that paid off every cent of the school debt.

Sharp differences of opinion among members of the trustee board of Virginia Seminary meeting in Lynchburg flared into the open at the closing session of the Virginia Baptist State Convention when Dr. Powell submitted his resignation (J&G July 7, 1945:1&2). His intention to resign, which he announced in a letter at the close of his annual message to the convention, came as a surprise to many of the delegates. It was reported that Dr. Powell was dissatisfied with the efforts of certain of the trustees to tie up school funds, thus thwarting his efforts to carry forward a building program which called for the immediate erection of a science hall. Powell supporters, however, in a trustee meeting won a major victory over his opponents when the trustees voted to ask him to remain at the school as president for another year until he completed his program for the school. Dr. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., said a special trustee board meeting would be held the following morning to consider the matter. In this meeting several concessions were made to Powell by the opposing faction on the board, chiefly on the matter of school funds. Dr. Powell subsequently agreed to remain.

Rev M. C. Allen wrote a personal message in the August issue of The Expected, official monthly organ of the Virginia Baptist State Convention (J&G Aug. 8, 1945:4). In it he opposed the new building at Virginia Seminary. He warned that it was no time for Virginia Seminary to embark upon a new building program. He also criticized the decision of the board of trustees to allow President Powell to proceed with his campus program involving the construction of a new $45,000 dollar building to house a library, science hall, and class rooms. Dr. Allen presented the opposing view stating that the present school plant would meet the immediate needs of the school enrollment. Allen listed as the most urgent and immediate needs of the school: a larger student body, more and better paid instructors, the installation of a minimum amount of equipment and books as would enable the school to qualify for state rating for the high school and junior college departments, and the resumption of the teacher-training department. He also pointed out the need for strengthening the theological department.

In the September issue of The Expected, Dr. E. C. Smith said that they would end the arrangement of part-time president on July 4, 1946. But he did not agree that the trustees had "made a terrible blunder" in supporting to the building program at the institution during these uncertain times (J&G Sep. 1, 1945:2). In a statement published in the January issue of The Expected, Dr. E. C. Smith announced that a full-time president was the next goal for Virginia Seminary (J&G Jan. 26, 1946:9).

An impressive account of Dr. W. H. R. Powell's stewardship as president of Virginia Seminary during two administrations covering almost fifteen years is contained in a booklet entitled "On Being a Part-Time President" recently released from the office of the president and written by Dr. Powell (J&G Jul. 20, 1946:3). Rev. Powell served December 8, 1926 to July 3, 1929 and September 1, 1934 to June 1, 1946. During Dr. Powell's administration a total of $511,993.43 was raised for the school. Dr. Powell found a bank balance of only $4.70 when he took charge of the school in 1926. When he returned in 1934 the bank balance was only $91.00 dollars. The debt when he came to the school in 1926 was in excess of $222,000 dollars. Dr. Powell pointed out that students were a liability to an institution because they never paid for their training and that at that time it was not wise financially for Virginia Seminary to have more than 250 students as a maximum.

In December 1946 M. C. Allen became the new president of Virginia Seminary. He predicted greater achievements and public service for the institution at his formal induction into office before an assembly of students and faculty.

A representative assembly of ministers, other officials, and lay messengers from churches in the Virginia Baptist State Convention held a largely attended protest meeting in Richmond, January 14 at Fifth Street Baptist Church pastored by Dr. C. C. Scott, a member of the school's trustee board (J&G Jan 25, 1947:1). The meeting which registered nearly 150 delegates besides visiting friends went on record as unanimously and vigorously protesting the recent action of the trustee board of Virginia Theological Seminary and College in dispensing with the services of Dr. Powell and electing Dr. M. C. Allen of Baltimore, as his successor. According to the reports from the meeting, several of the largest churches supporting the school through the state convention decided to stop supporting the school temporarily until a satisfactory adjustment was made with reference to the presidency of the school.

Dr. S. A. Brown of Petersburg, Virginia, reported that his church had been supporting the seminary under all its various administrative heads for the past forty-three years, but that beginning with January their monthly offering to the school had been discontinued until a satisfactory adjustment had been made. Dr. T. J. King of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, reported that the men of western Pennsylvania had decided to contribute not another penny until "this wrong is righted" referring to the deposition of Dr. Powell and the elevation of Dr. Allen. Dr. Bowling made a moving speech in defense of the record of Dr. Powell as the seminary's president for a total of fifteen years, concluding his address by presenting Dr. Powell to the audience as "the next president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College."

The committee on findings, headed by Dr. Richard H. Bowling of Norfolk, made its report at the evening session. The report precipitated a lively discussion but was finally adopted as read. The report was as follows:

"First, this body protests the action taken by the trustee board on December 3, 1946, at Petersburg, Virginia, in removing Dr. W. H. R. Powell from office as president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College,

a) Because of the shadow of suspicion thereby cast on his administration, despite the fact that he increased the school's revenues from $6,000 per year to over $80,000 paid in this past year.

b) Because he was neither asked nor allowed at this meeting to make a final report as president as to the finances and other affairs of the institution.

c) Because he was dismissed in the midst of a school term, nearing the end of a semester.

Second, this body protests the action of the said trustee board in its undemocratic and unchristian treatment of the minority present at the meeting, and to its further failure to give due consideration to the letters and resolution in protest against the proposed action, these written protests coming from the faculty and the students of the seminary, from large contributors hindered by illness and other causes from being present, and from the Shiloh Baptist Church of Philadelphia, donor of nearly $10,000 dollars to the seminary during the incumbency of Dr. Powell.

Third, this body protests the hasty and Hitlerian action of the newly-elected president, Dr. M. C. Allen, in rushing to Lynchburg to take over the institution on December 5 in spite of a specific request to Dr. Powell from the convention's president, Dr. E. C. Smith that Dr. Powell remain in charge as president until December 10.

Miss Thelma Ward, for twelve years secretary to Dr. Powell at the seminary, read a surprise address on the accomplishments of his administration. The assembly voted that it be published for the information of the entire constituency.

Dr. E. C. Smith (J&G Feb 8, 1947:1&2), president of the Virginia Baptist State Convention and a member of the board of trustees of Virginia Seminary issued a statement denying that former president Rev. Powell was ousted from his position at the board meeting held in Richmond January 14, 1947. The committee dealing with the issue of the full-time president "made every effort to induce the then part-time president to give up his church and give full services to the school, but he could not be brought to term. Failing in this, the committee submitted the name of Dr. M. C. Allen. Does this look like an ouster, or is it indecision?"

There was a dispute over the events surrounding the departure of Rev. Powell and the arrival of Rev. Allen. The paper reported that Dr. Allen went to the school a few days ahead of the committee as president-elect, only after the secretary to the part-time president had made a statement that she had no word from him since Dec. 2, 1946. The question was asked, if this is true, then who authorized the removal of the records of the school from the office and the removal of the furniture from the president's room early on the morning of Dec. 4, 1946. The furniture had been "arrested" and returned, but the records were still at large.

The arbitration committee (J&G May 24, 1947:1&2) acknowledged that Powell had been placed in an "unfavorable light" due to misunderstandings. They absolved Dr. Powell of all blame regarding transactions winding up his affairs at Virginia Seminary. On recommendation of the arbitration committee, the convention voted to absolve Dr. Powell of all blame for disunity in the church following his dismissal, to pay him the cost of auditing the institution's books which he had audited upon his removal, and to elect him as president emeritus of the institution and give him the opportunity to complete several projects which he had started at the school. Tension reached its highest point when Dr. Smith called on Dr. Powell to extend a few words of welcome to visiting delegates. Rev. Powell hesitated and then dramatically told the convention that he did not feel he could do justice to the occasion because of the injustices done him in a preconvention session. He said he did not feel that the delegates would want to hear what had happened to him. Urged to "Speak right up, brother!" Rev. Powell told the convention that, in effect, he had been invited by the faction opposing him during the preconvention session to "take his money and go to hell."

Dr. Smith later denied this. He said Dr. Powell was referring to a story told by a delegate at the meeting. The story concerned a group of ministers who had been asked to post $100 dollars each before voting in an election and when one minister asked if he could vote five times by posting $500 dollars, he had been told to take his money and go to hell.

Opposition to Dr. Allen as president of the seminary was led by the Rev. Samuel A. Wilson of the New Calvary Baptist Church, Norfolk, who appeared at the convention with copies of "Fact and Findings," a periodical which he edited and that castigated the Revs. Smith and Allen. The convention (J&G Aug 2, 1947:3) passed several resolutions to clear up the Seminary situation. In his reply to the resolutions, Dr. Powell declined all honors the group planned for him including the office of professor emeritus.

The Journal and Guide (Dec 20, 1947:4) carried the note that the $68,000 dollar Science Building had been dedicated at Virginia Seminary. Rev. Powell had used his vacations for several summers to supervise these projects and did some of the carpentry work and painting himself.

 

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