CHAPTER 18. BACK AT COURT STREET BAPTIST CHURCH , 1942-1943
Court Street Baptist Church (J&G, Jan. 4, 1941:11) had a banquet for Rev. and Mrs. W. F. Elliott who were leaving to work in High Point, North Carolina. Some of those present were W. G. Anderson of the official board of the church, Mrs. John H. Hughes, Jr., and J. G. Holmes.
Vernon Johns (J&G, Feb. 1, 1941:15) finally started to reappear in the pages of the Journal and Guide. The Young Christians Club met Sunday, January 19 at Court Street Baptist Church. Dr. Vernon Johns was the speaker at both services. The P.T.A. of Dunbar High School (J&G, Mar. 29, 1941:17) held a special meeting for fathers and men March 24. A program was rendered featuring Dr. Vernon Johns as main speaker.
In a letter to President Davis (March 27, 1941; WVSC archives), Vernon Johns wrote: "Thank you for the invitation to speak on the eleventh of April. You say there will be no remuneration. The privilege of seeing Mrs. Davis and perhaps I had better add you, will be quite sufficient. Please advise me of the hour I am to speak and any other necessary details."
Davis (April 2, 1941 WVSC archives) wrote back saying that the speaking dates were April 11 and 12 and adding: "Mrs. Davis and I will be delighted to see you. She enjoys the thought that you will find some value in greeting her."
Vernon Johns was the guest speaker on the pre-Easter program of Bluefield State Teachers College, West Virginia, April 6, 7, and 8, 1941. (WVD April 12, 1941:1)
"Johns new head at Court Street Baptist Church" ran the headline in the Journal and Guide (Oct. 4, 1941:4) The statement in the paper was somewhat snide: "The figure two has figured rather prominently in the church life of Dr. Vernon Johns, veteran Baptist pastor. He was twice connected with Virginia Theological Seminary, once as teacher, and once as president. He was twice the pastor of the Washington Street Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia; and now for the second time he takes over as pastor of the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg." It did mention that Dr. Johns is considered to be one of the leading religious lecturers in the country and is the only "race minister" to have a sermon listed and published among the "Hundred Best Sermons" in the country.
In the year 1941 the Rev. Vernon Johns was called for a second time to the pastorate of the church, which was unprecedented in the history of the church for a minister to be called for the second time.
Louise Williams (interview November 7, 1997) remembered an incident that happened when she was a young girl. A woman in church could not quiet her baby. Vernon Johns grew impatient and finally shouted at her "Lady, for God's sake, would you take that baby out?" Louise remembers feeling sorry for the young mother and thinking that her minister had been too harsh with the lady: "I thought that was so wrong." The church at Court Street was very formal, but one member of the congregation, Mrs. Cousins, was known as a shouter. She would shout out "Amen" to the Reverend's remarks. One Sunday Rev. Johns was preaching about rivers and every time he named one Mrs. Cousin's would shout "Amen". After listing a string of rivers and hearing the shout "Amen" after each naming, he mentioned the name of a more obscure river and there was absolute silence. Rev. Johns said "Umm. There's a river Miss Cousins doesn't know."
Johns would sermonize on issues such as access to the park and other racial issues. He would close the Bible, put his elbow on it, and then start speaking. A lot of the congregation did not like this. He seldom raised his voice in the pulpit. But all week long the congregation would be talking abut what Johns had said in church. Whether they like him or not, they remembered what he had said. He did not dress right. He was a country boy and he looked the part.
Louise Williams (interview November 7, 1997) said that a lot of the people in the Court Street Baptist Church congregation said they never really could understand Vernon Johns' sermons. Much of it simply went over their heads. Johns ran a store. Hickey Wilson ran the little store on the corner. Johns was always telling us that we would get salvation through economics. She and Henry Powell said they thought that Johns had something to do with the New Era Hall, a group of black businessmen.
Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) said that she remembered Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. coming to the church and how Vernon Johns introduced Powell and his new bride Hazel Scott and saying that the couple had just recently married. She also said that Vernon did not like church administration.
The fourth in the series of "Challenges" to the fundamental social agencies (J&G, March 28, 1942:19) presented by the exigencies of the times was discussed at the Community Forum meeting at Hunton Branch YMCA Sunday, March 22, 1942. Among the previous topics in the series and leaders were "Challenge to the Church" by Dr. Vernon Johns.
Mrs. Johns was Community Forum Leader at the YWCA, May 10, where she chose as her subject "Great Christian Hymns." She gave a brief history of the origin and interpretation of some of the more familiar gospel songs and thus illumined they were sung by the audience. (J&G, May 16, 1942:18)
On June 14, 1942 Vernon Johns wrote President Davis of West Virginia State College (WVSC Archives) saying that "I am very anxious to have you come and serve one Sunday all day at Court Street while school is not in session. It is my plan to arrange my Installation Service for the occasion of your coming. Will you kindly name the date most convenient to you?" President Davis (June 17, 1942 WVSC archives) wrote back saying "When do you plan your installation services? I must know the probable time of such services before I can say whether or not it will be convenient for me to spend a day with you in Lynchburg. Mrs. Davis and Dash join me in kind regards to you and the members of your family. Things continue to go relatively well here."
Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) said that one time an acquaintance of hers came to the church at Court Street Baptist Church with her children. She was fussing with the children and Rev. Johns suddenly shouted out: "Please be quiet and listen to what the Lord told me to tell the congregation today." She said that Rev. Johns could hold a congregation spellbound for the entire hour. You could hear a pin drop.
While at Court Street Baptist Church, Johns (J&G, May. 31, 1941:4) heard of troubles at a popular black resort in Lynchburg known as Happyland Resort. The Happyland Lake of this city, probably the most beautiful summer resort for colored patronage in this locality will open what is expected to be the most successful season in its history, this weekend. Operating under the new management of W. T. Johnson, Jr. several improvements have been made which will add much to the comfort of its patrons. Besides the main building, there are three other buildings at the lake, all of which combine to make the institution complete. The dance pavilion located on the highest hill on the property, has sufficient floor space for the larger dances. The main building houses the bar, restaurant (with private dining rooms), hotel accommodations (all outside rooms) and a modern dance floor suitable for parties where the best of service may be had. The third building is that of the Hill City Political and Recreational Club, a private organization composed largely of citizens of Lynchburg. The lake itself, with its crystal clear waters, is like a mirror framed with the natural green on the hillsides. There are diving boards, boats, and all other water accessories to make swimming and bathing a real pleasure. The lake is the centerpiece of the reserve and around it lie the many other attractions for the vacationist."
There was a shooting at Happyland Resort (J&G, May 30, 1942:1&12). The newspaper carried a picture showing one of several bullet holes said to have been fired in the direction of three men who allegedly attempted to crash a private dance. As a result of the efforts of the resort's management to oust three uninvited men, Tom Jones, one of the men, was mortally wounded. Mr. Maurice Smith, manager of the resort, and R. W. "Whirlwind" Johnson, prominent Lynchburg physician and sportsman and the man who leased the resort, were arrested on a charge of murder after Jones died from gun shot wounds. The Lynchburg Social Club, of which Dr. Johnson was business manager, had engaged the Happyland Lake auditorium for an old fashioned barn dance. Ejected twice by the management, the lads allegedly began an assault on the premises with bottles and stones, breaking many panes of glass. In the ensuing battle, Jones was fatally shot.
Dr. Johnson was exonerated of murder charges in the boy's killing. (June 27, 1942, p. 4) Maurice Smith, Happyland manager, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He was to serve six months in jail and pay a fine of $250 dollars (J&G, Nov. 14, 1942:4).
Dr. J. M. Ellison, president of Virginia Union University, Richmond, Virginia, (J&G, Sep 19, 1942:4) delivered the installation sermon Sunday, September 6, 1942, at which time the Rev. Vernon Johns began his second pastorate at Court Street Baptist Church.
Congressman Arthur W. Mitchell of Chicago (J&G, Oct. 31, 1942:20), who replaced Oscar de Priest, was the principal speaker on Sunday, October 18, at a mass meeting at the Dunbar High School sponsored by the South Lynchburg P.T.A. The congressman, who spoke to a crowd of several hundred, was introduced by the Rev. Vernon Johns.
As morale builders, the Hunton branch YMCA (J&G, Nov 14, 1942:19) planned topics such as the poll tax and character building agencies. Set for December 20, Dr. Vernon Johns spoke on "The Need of Religious Education Among Educated People."
Shortly before his death, the two authors spoke to Olivet Thaxton, who was a member of the Court Street Baptist Church and was extremely fond of Vernon Johns. He said "I idolized the man so. He was a lot of inspiration to me. I made sure that I went to church every Sunday when he was there. He was a smart man." Thaxton even left his old church just to be able to hear Vernon Johns. "Yeah, I was a member of a little church up here, Mount Carmel Baptist Church. I was a member of that. And I started to go to Court Street and Johns was so interesting I stayed over there. I just didn't go back no more."
Johns did not like the congregation to speak in church during his sermons. Thaxton said "And he didn't allow nobody to say "Amen" or nothing. If they do then he would stop. He'd say Well they're going to take the service over.' He was something to reckon with. He was a smart man."
Very early on Johns talked about class barriers between people. Thaxton said "I was down in Salisbury, North Carolina and every year they used to have some kind of interracial, integrated meeting and he spoke that afternoon in Salisbury. And I heard he was going to be there. I changed clothes. . . . And he got to talking about poor man Lazarus and rich man Dives. And he just preached a sermon off that thing, you know."
In the sermon he gave the famous story of Christ's parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives. The rich man was surprised to find himself in hell and even more surprised when he realized that the beggar Lazarus was up in heaven. Still arrogant, Dives asked father Abraham to tell Lazarus to bring down some water to cool a rich man's thirst. But Abraham explained that a "great gulf" separated the two men. Johns preached that this great gulf was none other than segregation. Johns explained that Dives was in hell not because he was a rich man, but because Dives perversely insisted on maintaining the evil of segregation, even after death. Johns told them that segregation blinded people to their common humanity.
Thaxton said Vernon Johns "talked about Ol' Hickory and the pioneers of North Carolina, you know. But he could make you mad but then ... make it taste a little better. . . . The greatest speaker I ever heard. . . . Johns was tough. Sometimes in the sermon he'd say I don't understand you people. You give people orders like rich man Dives down there in hell. You say what rich man Dives said Send him down here, send him down here," (laughter) because it is so hot it burns his (Dives's) tongue. He'd say I don't understand you white people. Why you, why you want to demand certain things of other people, of the people like that, you know. But he was tough; he was very good."
Johns took on the local powers that be. Virginia, the mother of numerous presidents, virtually belonged to its monarchs, Senators Carter Glass and Harry F. Byrd, for life. Byrd (Egerton 1994:220) was a Winchester apple baron who had a forty-year reign as governor and senator (1925-1965). His lordly Senate colleague, Carter Glass, was now an octogenarian.
Thaxton commented about Johns: "Then one Sunday he'd say 'Next Sunday I am going to preach about Almighty God, Senator Glass, and the Poor Negro.' Johns (Boddie 1972:68-69) having advertised the upcoming sermon, a committee of upset community fathers had called upon him and asked why he had advertised so pointedly. Johns replied: "It must have proven effective. You are here."
Thaxton added: "And he would preach that Sunday. The church was just full of people, you know. And he talked about Senator Glass and he talked about the old prosecuting attorney, Bob Yancey I think it was."
Thaxton commented further saying about Johns that "He went down there and got after Carter Glass why he didn't refer to (black) people in his newspaper as Mr. and Mrs. He went up to his office . He told (us) from the pulpit that he went to his office. You are crazy you get out of my office. He told Glass Now, you know I'm not crazy.' The next Sunday he got up and talked about Glass like a dog, in the pulpit, you know." (Senator Carter Glass was sick. He did not answer a senate roll call after 1942. He died May 28, 1946.)
The sermon "Almighty God, Senator Glass, and Negroes" was a scathing denunciation of the newspaper's refusal to accord the courtesy of a title to the names of the Negroes. Rev. Johns (Powell 1995:16) said that Cater Glass loves his Negroes, and they love him. Virginia Hughes added that many of those blacks who loved him did so because they got jobs via connections to Glass and his empire. She remembered how Johns would criticize black folks for driving fine cars and wearing fine clothes. A short time later he went to Glass's office to speak with him. Glass said to him "Vernon Johns you don't think I like colored people. But I had one (black) man who worked for me for 40 years." But Glass did start using the appropriate titles along with black names appearing in his newspapers.
Reverend Robert B. Powell (Gandy 1977:xvii-xix) records the tale this way. The white press of Lynchburg (owned by Senator Carter Glass) refused to place the title Mr. or Mrs. before the name of a Negro. Johns, as pastor of Court Street Baptist Church went in to see Senator Carter Glass. 'Powell', Vernon Johns said, 'I knew that Senator Glass would not talk to me so I wrote my talk and gave it to his secretary. After reading my message he called me into his office, of course I had to stand the entire period. Then, he said to me, Johns, you are a fool! I replied, now, Senator Glass you are too smart a man to call me a fool. He then really began to call me a fool and ordered me out of his office. But the next edition of the paper referred to Negroes by the title Mr. or Mrs.
Thaxton said "One time he had one of the white preachers come in to Court Street Baptist Church. He got up to introduce this preacher, pastor at First Baptist church. He got up and said Ladies and gentlemen I know he'll never give me the privilege of speaking to his people.' He (the white pastor) got up and talked about how smart Johns was. And some fellow up at Oberlin he knew. A professor up there had told him that if you are ever down there in Prince Edward County you be sure and hear him (Johns) because he was one of the smartest men ever to come out of Oberlin. He was something else. He was a smart man. I really enjoyed him. He would tell you something every Sunday. He'd leave you with something every Sunday. Something to think about. Yeah, every Sunday. I didn't understand why they didn't like him. Because he was really smart and he would say things that you had no idea he'd say."
Johns never seemed to patronize the local stores. "I never knowed him to go down to any of the stores in Lynchburg. He used to sell water melons. People didn't like it, but he kept on." Olivet also added that when Altona Johns was at the church, she played the piano and Dr. Stewart played the organ.
Thaxton, contrasting Johns's time in Lynchburg and in Montgomery, said "He wasn't like that in Lynchburg. No, he wasn't like that. He would say things like he'd talk about Carter Glass and Bob Yancey. But he wasn't as bad as he was down there in Alabama."
The Vanishing Virginian
Rebecca Yancey William was the daughter of Bob Yancey, known as Captain Bob. In 1940 she wrote a book about Lynchburg and her father that became a best seller. Her father served for thirty-five years as the commonwealth's attorney for the city of Lynchburg.
The author's mother (William 1940:18) was born in Lynchburg and her father had been the mayor of the city. Her father represented the old South. His wife said he acted as though his office was hereditary and that he was the King of Lynchburg.
The paper (J&G, March 14, 1942:19) reported on the showing of the new movie "The Vanishing Virginian" saying it was based on the story of Lynchburg. The film starred such top names as Frank Morgan, Kathryn Grayson, Leigh Whipper and Louise Beavers. Many scenes were actually filmed in Lynchburg and many familiar faces could be recognized where a local cast had been utilized.
Bob Smith (1965:78) wrote that "Mr. Johns liked to cook up spicy sermon titles in order to shake his congregation out of what he regarded as lethargy." When the book The Vanishing Virginian was popular, he preached a sermon entitled "Some Virginians Who Ought to Vanish." Johns thus needled the power structure unmercifully.
In 1943 a fire completely destroyed the home of Vernon Johns in Farmville. The origin of the blaze was unknown at the time of reporting (J&G January 16, 1943:1). In the next week's paper (J&G January 23, 1943:17) it was reported that "Dr. Johns Sees Future as Uncertain."
Vernon Johns in his address on "Civilization" delivered at the Bennett College vespers Sunday afternoon, January 12, in the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel, said that: "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, and because this race has not been completely won by education, we are by no means sure of the future of our civilization." The speaker pointed out that abiding civilization is not in terms of reordering environment alone, but in terms of reordering ourselves; and it can become permanent when man rids himself of the spirit of greed, contentiousness, and exclusiveness.
Last Days At Court Street Baptist Church
Johns would often talk about events that happened locally of which he did not approve. Thaxton said that members of the congregation would go out to a black resort known as Happyland Lake and get into a fight. Reverend Johns would hear of it and then at the climax of a sermon he'd say, "Next Sunday I'm going to preach about dog patch Negroes at 2 a.m. Big Negroes would take the little ones out there and feed them all that corn whisky and get em drunk and take their life. And people would just swarm in." Some of the congregation, however, did not care for these dogpatch sermons.
The Court Street Baptist Church history (1960:11-12) said that it was soon discovered that Dr. Johns had continued the practice of following up frequent lecturing engagements which caused him to be absent too long from the church. This forced the deacon board to draw a set of resolutions setting up the duties of the pastor in his service to the church. Johns did not feel he could give much time to the pastoral duties and he tendered his resignation after about eighteen months of his second term.
Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) said the church asked Vernon Johns to resign. They put him out of the church because of the dog patch sermon. Although he did not name names, everyone in the congregation knew who he was talking about. The offended clique then used chicanery to get Vernon Johns out by convincing other cliques that he should go. In the vote, only two members of the congregation voted for him, but quite a few abstained from voting at all.
Johns lost his job at Court Street Baptist Church sometime before April 11, 1943. The paper (J&G April 24, 1943:12) carried the story of Johns speaking at Eureka Lodge Annual Service in Norfolk on that date. The paper introduced Johns as former pastor of Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg and now a resident of Farmville. Just how and why Johns lost his job we do not know. But, given his outspokenness, it would not be hard to imagine how.
In Norfolk (J&G April 24, 1943:12) a large number of members and visitors were present at the services. His speech was on the theme of "The Role of the Rebel in the History of Progress." Citing numerous illustrations demonstrating that the rebel has carried the light of progress in the history of the world, and that monumental changes have been effected in the life of man through the zeal of the rebel, Dr. Johns urged that the Negro absorb the spirit of pioneering. The educator made much of the race's opportunity to make progress, and deplored instances of its lack of appreciation of its opportunities.
Before coming to address the memorial services Johns had preached at Bank Street Baptist Church at the morning hour when he used for his theme "Strengthen That Which Remaineth." Here Dr. Johns emphasized that hope must be eternal and that man must make the best of what might appear to be the last vestige of opportunity.
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