CHAPTER 17. BACK IN CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 1937-1941
Progressiveness of West Virginia
West Virginia was more progressive than many other state. The West Virginia Digest acknowledged this in an article appearing September 7, 1940 (p.1). It said that the blacks of West Virginia have helped the Negro throughout the nation by blazing many new trails. They told of at least ten areas in which West Virginia blacks led the way. One of these was that West Virginia was the first state to provide equal salaries for white and black teacher with equal preparation and experience. Another was that the state was the first to make a black State superintendent of Negro Schools.
Johns (WVD, April 20, 1940:7) himself notes the progressive nature of West Virginia. He says that the question of the gradual abolition of slavery was actually discussed in the West Virginia Convention. "The new state born of the encroachments of slave holders did not have the moral strength to free itself in turn from slavery, but it did have the strength to try. Thank God."
"And the West Virginia Negro has the encouragement derived from knowing that West Virginia was originally constituted of white people who could ALMOST do right on a matter relating to Negroes. In this respect they were infinitely ahead of the state from which they broke away. And they still are."
The proof that West Virginia was more progressive than Virginia is apparent from the appearance of a regular column for Vernon Johns in the newspaper West Virginia Digest. While Johns had virtually disappeared from the pages of the Norfolk, Virginia Journal and Guide, he was a prominent figure and speaker in West Virginia while he was in Charleston.
First Church, Charleston, West Virginia: 1937-1941
Since the last time Vernon Johns had been in Charleston, 1927, there had been quite a few changes (Randall and Gilmer 1989:38-39). The new three-unit capitol building complex was up as of February 1, 1932, with gaudy gold plating on the capitol dome added in the mid-1990s. The Ferguson Hotel was still in business and the A. H. Brown building was finished. So also was the new Garnett High School, except now it was the Garnet High School. When workers cut the name of the school into the cornerstone and the arch over the entrance, they spelled Garnett with only one "t". Instead of recutting the stone, the board of education merely adopted the new spelling as the official one. Since the new school had no real campus and the entrance doors opened directly onto the street, the students became very attached to Shrewsbury Street. In fact, the area became known as "the block" in Charleston. It was the gathering place for the black residents of Charleston. Sometimes the community would block off the street and have parades and other social events.
The ministers of Charleston, West Virginia and vicinity (J&G June 2, 1934:4) drafted a letter of commendation to the Rev. J. Raymond Henderson, pastor of Wheat St. Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, congratulating him on successfully liquidating the heavy debt he found on the church when he became its pastor three years ago. Reverend Richard Hurst Hill (1934-1936) assumed active duties as pastor in February 1934. "In addition to brief, yet brilliant sermons, he is particularly remembered for his invaluable compilation of the history of the church."
"The First Baptist Church here has just terminated a most successful year in its history. Struggling with an indebtedness accumulated over a period of several years, which amounted to approximately $2,500, the church has completely liquidated all debts and made physical improvements totaling $800. There has been a notable increase in membership, and the publication of a four-page weekly bulletin has established a current medium particularly for all information pertaining to the welfare of the church. The current pastor is Rev. Richard Hurst Hill" (J&G January 19, 1935:20). He remained until he decided to accept a position at Howard University. He joined the faculty upon the recommendation of Dr. Mordecai Johnson. He died a short time later.
Shortly thereafter, Reverend Vernon Johns returned to the First Church of Charleston (1937- 1941) for a second time. (The first term was 1927-1928). He and his family occupied the house that was situated on the site the present edifice at the corner of Shrewsbury and Lewis Streets. The Rev. Ronald English wrote "A prolific scholar, persuasive preacher and daring entrepreneur, he became a legend in his own time." (First Baptist Church of Charleston:14).
Mrs. Altona Johns must have stayed in Farmville to teach. In the opening of the R. R. Moton School in Farmville in 1938, the Farmville Herald (September 2, 1938:8) mentioned that teaching history and English was Mrs. A. T. Johns.
In a letter dated December 28, 1936 (West Virginia State College archives), President John W. Davis of the college wrote Vernon Johns at the First Baptist Church of Charleston address: "I am respectfully inviting you to deliver a thirty minute address here at seven o'clock, Sunday evening, February 7th, 1937. As already indicated, I am anxious for you to appear before the faculty and students of this college. We do not have a fund from which we might draw pay for our Sunday evening speakers. It will be possible, however, for us to take care of charges incident to your coming to us. . . ."
The Charleston Gazette (February 7 & May, 2, 1937) reported that Johns was to speak to the faculty and students of West Virginia State College at the services in the college auditorium. He gave the annual sermon to the graduating class of the West Virginia Schools for the Colored Deaf and Blind.
In a letter dated September 3, 1937, President Davis wrote Vernon Johns: "I am at this time extending you a cordial invitation to deliver a twenty-five minute address here on Sunday evening, October 3rd, 1937. We shall probably have an audience of 900 students and teachers who will be anxious to hear you. It is my desire to have a spiritual message delivered to our students early in the coming school term. You can appreciate the need for this. It is my hope that you will be able to accept the invitation now extended. . . ." The Charleston Gazette (October 3, 1937) also carried notice that Rev. Johns would be speaker for the Sunday evening services at West Virginia State College.
In a letter dated January 18, 1938 (West Virginia State College archives) President Davis wrote Vernon Johns: "Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, Dean of the School of Religion of Howard University, Washington, D.C. has rather definitely decided to address the faculty and students of this college on Sunday evening, April 3rd, 1938. You will recall that I promised to let you know when Dr. Mays would be coming to us. I believe that you wish to write him about appearing at the First Baptist Church in Charleston. . . . I promised to write to the Clerk of the Deacon Board of the Second Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia about having you appear there during the time of your proposed trip to the South."
In a letter dated September 30, 1938, President Davis wrote Vernon Johns: "I am happy to extend you an invitation to preach to the faculty and students of this college at seven o'clock on Sunday evening, November 6, 1938. Your messages here are always stimulating and vital. Our faculty and students rejoice always in your coming. It is my hope that you may find it convenient to accept the invitation, now extended."
Johns wrote back (October 12, 1938 WVSC archives) saying "I will be very glad to come to you on November 6, and am delighted to know that you will preach for us Sunday morning, October 23." Davis (October 13, 1938 WVSC archives) wrote back saying that he would be glad to deliver an address in Johns' absence.
Vernon Johns (J&G November 26, 1938:4) gave a speech on "The Challenge of Religion to the Negro" at the Twenty Second Annual Convocation of the School of Religion of Howard University. He was one of four speakers brought to speak on the theme "As I See Religion."
Mr. Chauncey Spencer of the National Airmen's Association of Chicago visited West Virginia State College announced the student paper The Yellow Jacket (November 20, 1939:3). Spencer announced that he was pleased with the progress made at the college in the pilot training courses. Spencer had visited other colleges receiving grants under the Civil Aeronautics authority, including A&T college and Hampton Institute.
At about the same time, Rev. Johns spoke in the regular Sunday evening chapel service November 19, 1939 (WVD November 20, 1939:4). The paper commented: "Many of the older students of the college have heard Rev. Johns several times before. He is always enthusiastically received by the students here."
Vernon Johns (February 9, 1940 WVSC archives) wrote President Davis: "This note is a reminder of your kind consent to speak at the First Baptist Church, Sunday morning February 18th, at 11:00. " President Davis (February 10, 1940, WVSC archives) wrote back: "According to promise I will attempt to speak for you at the First Baptist Church, Charleston, West Virginia at eleven o'clock on the morning of February 18th. I know that my feeble remarks will cause your congregation to miss your great message."
In July of 1940 Vernon Johns gave a radio address. President Davis (July 7, 1940 WVSC archives) sent him a telegram saying: "Your radio sermon today most excellent and inspiring. Submit it as one of best sermons of this year."
After Johns left in 1941, the First Baptist Church was led by the Reverend Moses Newsome (1941-1971) "who provided us with strength, with stability, and with stature." In 1959 during the pastorate of Reverend Newsome, the new edifice of the First Baptist Church, located on the corner of Lewis and Shrewsbury Streets in Charleston, West Virginia, was built. For thirty years he guided the church. He died suddenly in February 1971.
Vernon Johns (Boddie 1972:73) never changed. The stories become oh, so familiar. One day a deacon of the church waited upon Vernon Johns to discuss whether or not he was allowing his farm to get between him and his church. He replied, "Oh, I was afraid you came to remind me that I was allowing church to get between me and my farm." (Boddie 1972:68) As usual, his abrasiveness came out. A Charlestonian had died in a brawl. Johns said to the congregation that "Anyone who stops by a grog shop with his paycheck instead of going straight home to his wife and family with it ought to be struck over the head with a ball bat and killed. The benediction will take place at the cemetery."
In 1937 he became president of the Kanawha Valley Consumer's Cooperative. Johns (Boddie 1972:68) equated religion with work. After all, the Master was a carpenter, a "worker." If, under religious auspices, Father Devine in New York City could build one of the most effective consumer cooperatives, then Johns could at least praise hard workers.
One time Johns (Boddie 1972:66-67) arrived early at the church of Boddie's brother in Baltimore. He whispered "I've got 50 hams stashed away in the baptismal candidate's dressing room. I'm featuring them." But by the time of the services, it was not a secret anymore because everyone could smell the hams in the cellar. "For all his talk of farming and business, Johns was not a good businessman. He never seemed to learn how to make money. His economics did not match his grand point of view in the area. He was too rural oriented. Were his attention but centered upon more sophisticated avenues of work, such as sales, business, and other white- and blue-collar work, cash-yielding enterprises, more people might have paid attention to his expounding of economic theories. He himself appeared as a failure as a producer."
Marianne Jones (interview by telephone February 5, 1996) was a member of the First Baptist Church congregation for many years. She knew Mordecai Johnson, saying that he was "so precious" and that "He was the mostly Godly man I knew." She was even baptized by Mordecai Johnson. Johnson was always in a suit and tie. In contrast Johns was rustic, a farmer. He did not take any pride in his clothing. "The man only had about two suits to his name." She added, however, that Vernon Johns "was a man way beyond anyone else in capacity. A man with a prophetic, deep insight. And his language was so unusual with a deep Southern accent, even to the extent of saying 'dis and 'dat. His sermons were so deep; over their heads. My mother didn't understand half of it, but I felt called upon to listen."
The Journal and Guide (June 12, 1937:11) reported that Detroit would host the NAACP group June 29 to July 5, 1937. The Youth Council of the NAACP sponsored several affairs prior to the convention to raise additional funds. July 1 would be the official Youth Day of the convention. The grand youth banquet would be held at the local Y.W.C.A. Johns took the high-school aged Marianne and a girlfriend, Dorothy Walker, to Detroit, Michigan to attend the NAACP meeting. He recited poetry from Charleston to Detroit and back, Shakespeare, and the classic poets like Milton, Keats, Shelly, and Browning. "I felt gratified to be in his presence. . . . He was a wonderful man, like a prophet."
One time she was in a girl scout play. She had expected her fiancée to be there. She got all dressed up to go to a dance. But the fiancée did not show up, so she sat there with Reverend Johns. They talked about the church and other matters. "He was very warm to me. I enjoyed that evening as much as one of dancing." Later her future husband apologized and explained to her that he had gotten drunk at initiation night at a local fraternity.
But she also added that "a lot of people didn't like him." One of the things they did not care for was his constant emphasis on blacks producing instead of consuming. He sold fish and he had the church basement full of all kinds of goods. "He would talk about our prosperity. He would say you don't have to spend every dollar you get. But he never could get that following that he wanted. He also would speak from the pulpit about conditions that were going on. He was humorous."
She commented that "Some thought he was a rascal. He liked his women; there were no affairs, but he appreciated pretty girls. All preachers will chase women if they can." He also got after her sister once in front of the entire congregation for her being late, something that did not endear the minister to the sister. But this kind of criticism rolled right off his back. He kept right on preaching from his heart and his head, never having a written sermon. He said that black institutions would never be secure until their members learned to endow their institutions and leave all their money to their children. "He was a man of God in spite of what people said of him."
One woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that she did not want to be quoted because she did not want to say anything bad about Vernon Johns because he had done so much for his people. But she found him to be a "difficult man." She refused, however, to elaborate.
Marianne Jones also knew J. Raymond Henderson of the old First Baptist Church. "He was polished, smooth, but his sermons didn't have that elevation that Johns's had." Reverend Newsome, Johns's successor, had sermons that "were simple enough for any grown child. My son used to sit there every Sunday and enjoyed the Bible-story caliber stories." Marianne also knew Altona, but Altona did not play the piano for the church. She lived in the parsonage on Shrewsbury. "Although Vernon Johns liked the old black spirituals, I never heard him sing. I don't remember hearing him sing." Johns was not as militant as he would prove later to be in Montgomery.
Johns could have been influenced by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. While Vernon Johns was in Charleston, Powell had started his movement for more equality in Harlem. In 1938 Powell organized the Greater New York Coordinating Committee on Employment in order to bring pressure on those employers who discriminated against blacks. The methods used included persuasion, pickets, and boycotts. The organization started to picket the white-owned businesses on 125th Street and won the concessions that at least one-third of the stores' employees would be black. Powell also pushed through concession from the bottling companies, bakeries, bus companies and bus drivers' union. (Bailey 1994:43)
Johns was not doing well economically in Charleston. In a column (WVD, February 3, 1940:4) he wrote that he had promised himself a trip to California in December of 1938. "To make sure everything would be ready, I deferred the pleasure until February of thirty nine. " But when February of 1939 arrived he wrote that "my situation was so bad it required considerable courage to stay in Charleston to say nothing of a trip to California."
The one thing he complained about was his own economic situation. He talked about the visit of cousin John Watkins to Vernon's father, cousin William. Watkins had improved his lot, but had fallen on hard times: "All I have now is one steer. Cousin William, I've got back right where I started." Johns wonders if this thriftlessness flows in the family blood. He added that he did not want to complain of his lot when his brothers were in much worse condition, "but if I ever get another chance at this lovely thing called life, I am going to book-keep, budget, analyze, curtail, retrench, and whatever else that is necessary to get ahead, or at least keep up. . . ."
February 15, 1940, Vernon Johns spoke at a Good-will Banquet at the University of Cincinnati with President Robert M. Hutchins of the University of Chicago (WVD 2/10/40:5).
In Charleston Johns (WVD March 9, 1940:8) became part of a committee that visited the county poor farm at Institute, West Virginia to investigate conditions among the black inmates there. This was part of the work of the Ministers' Conference. The committee found deplorable conditions for the black inmates. They had to live in the basement while whites lived upstairs in far superior quarters. Also, the whites received far better and more frequent medical care than the blacks. The ministerial committee called for a meeting for March 11 at the Young Street Baptist Church.
On April 15 (WVD April 13, 1940:5) Vernon Johns opened a meeting of the Minister's Conference of Charleston and vicinity which met to discuss the topic: "The Negro in the Political World." An article in the paper (WVD October 12, 1940:5) carried news that the NAACP would meet in early November of 1940 at West Virginia State College. Among the speakers would be President John W. Davis and Rev. Vernon Johns.
During almost the entire period that Vernon Johns was in Charleston, West Virginia, he virtually disappeared from the pages of the Journal and Guide. Many speakers of far less ability were invited to speak before various types of black audiences, but not Johns. The only item found about Johns (J&G November 26, 1938:4) during this period was that Johns spoke at the twenty-second annual convocation of the school of religion at Howard University. Four speakers were brought together to speak on the general theme "As I See Religion." Johns talked on "The Challenge of Religion to the Negro." Men of lesser ability such as Mordecai Johnson, Howard Thurman, the conservatives R. R. Moton and Mr. Patterson of the Tuskegee Institute, and even Raymond J. Henderson and many run-of-the-mill pastors spoke frequently, but Johns' name was virtually nowhere to be found.
Loses His Newspaper Column
Johns self-destructed again. He lost his column in the West Virginia Digest by biting the hand that fed him. In his last column (WVD, April 27, 1940:4) he wrote that the West Virginia Digest and the white Charleston Gazette both displayed the filthiest news that could be garnered. They both reported on two blacks being asphyxiated in an air-tight room from carbon monoxide poisoning. But he said the black paper was the worse of the two papers, for while the white paper had a small notice of the event tucked toward the back of the newspaper, the West Virginia Digest had the news on the front page. "The management has found a couple of corpses in a high state of physical and moral decomposition and these must be stretched out, full length, on the front porch of their journal, naked and rotting, for the edification of the public." Johns was especially displeased because the paper had to bring in the church by emphasizing that the two deceased were church clerk and paramour, instead of simply saying clerk and paramour. "The church pretends at least to stand for something high. Here is an opportunity to further impair its standing. Too bad the headline could not be long enough to connect the choir, deacon-board, and what not -- but these, along with surviving members of the family, will get ample attention on the front page."
The most damaging statement in his article was: Somewhere there is a great newspaper whose slogan is: all the news that's fit to print'. But it isn't colored. THE COLORED PRESS IS UNDOUBTEDLY THE BUZZARD OF JOURNALISM. The slogan of the colored press is all the news that's fit to print; -- which space can be found for, after the news that is not fit to print is exhausted. . . . Now if a people is made by the stuff on which it feeds it is not difficult to understand what our press is doing for its reading public."
Johns disappeared from the paper until his face was on the front page June 8, 1940. The caption under the picture said that he had recently returned from a speaking tour that took him to Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and Kentucky State College. Next week he would deliver a series of four addresses at Shaw University in North Carolina.
Last Stand in Charleston
Dr. B. F. Clark (telephone interview October 30, 1997) said that Vernon Johns was "quite a man," very outgoing and simply outstanding in his sermon delivery. He also noted that Johns was very tough and outspoken and sold fish and vegetables in Charleston. Marianne Jones said that "The church asked Vernon Johns to leave. They did not like his selling goods at the church. They didn't know they had a prophet amongst them."
The church (WVD January 11, 1941:1) voted on whether to accept or reject Vernon Johns' tendered resignation on January 7, 1941. The reporter was so shocked at the bitterness of the meeting that his only consolation was that at least it was not as bad as past years when it was necessary for police to help keep order. The meeting was well attended "with some persons present who have not been seen at church in many moons." The reporter wrote that the meeting was a time for rekindling the flames of personal grievances, for settling past differences with church officers, and for getting things off one's chest.
C. W. Boyd, supervisor of Negro schools, read the resignation letter. One individual asked whether the letter read by Mr. Boyd was the same one shown him previously. A part of the resignation letter had been omitted in order to save trouble and unnecessary hard feelings. The individual demanded that it be read. The reporter commented that after hearing the passage read, he could not tell whether the individual "gloated over the words or felt that it showed his pastor to be a rather 'small' individual." The reporter found a man and his wife to be very "insulting" and "undiplomatic" in their remarks: "We have still to learn, some of us, that there is a right way of saying even the wrong thing."
One church officer stated that the pastor did not really want to resign. "If the church called the pastor's bluff, certainly someone's face is red." "However, after almost two hours' chewing the rag' and gnashing teeth, they voted -- sixty-one in favor of the pastors' resignation and thirty-five against it." The resignation took effect January 1, 1941.
A Fight in Farmville
While Vernon Johns (Kluger 1976:453) was ministering at Charleston, West Virginia, back in Farmville he was insisting that bus service be provided for the black school children of Prince Edward County. Mrs. Johns (Smith, Bob 1965:77) said that this disagreement, more than anything else, earned her husband the enmity of whites in the county: "The children going to high school in Farmville had to be boarded out there, if they lived out in the country. There were no school buses at all for Negroes. Well, it was bad because if a family had several boys and girls and could afford to board out only one, they boarded out one of the girls."
By failing to provide school buses (Smith, Bob 1965:77), the county forced black parents to perpetuate the matriarchal society that kept the men on the farm and put the women in the position of chief wage earner. It was the old story of the women getting the education that would help them stay South and teach or go north and get jobs as secretaries, while the men remained in low-paying, low-skilled jobs. There was little point in educating black males for jobs they would be blocked from attaining anyway.
Vernon Johns (Smith, Bob 1965:77-78) appeared before the school board. They remembered him, alright. At one point, when rumors were prevalent that he wished to replace the principal of the R. R. Moton school at that time, he asked the school board if they believed the story. Told they did not, he responded, "I'm glad. I had prided myself that I could expect nothing from this board."
Vernon Johns was not the only person fighting for bus desegregation. Dr. N. P. Miller, president of the local NAACP, was important in the struggle (Marshall 1997). The board of education had a meeting once a month and the NAACP would be there. Ben Marshall purchased his own bus and went as far as the Charlotte county line picking up one load and then another. The parents paid him ten cents per student per week or month depending on their ability to pay to ride the bus. He also received ten cents per student from the county. Two other blacks bought buses, one in Greenbay and one in Prospect. The NAACP used Marshall's figures on the number of black children riding the bus to make their case before the school board.
Superintendent McIlwaine's figures (Smith, Bob 1965:78) showed that the first buses for black school children in the county were furnished in 1938-39 and that 50 percent of the black students were being transported by 1944-45. As late as November, 1944, however, Vernon Johns was leading a delegation before the school board to protest the hand-me-down school buses assigned to Negroes and the over-crowding on these buses.
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