CHAPTER 13. VERNON JOHNS IN CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, 1927-1928

Charleston, West Virginia

The British government closed western Virginia to settlement in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War. The area opened again following new treaties with the Shawnee Indians, but the Indians drove out or killed the first settlers.

Charleston is located in Kanawha County, the fourth largest county in West Virginia. The Kanawha River bisects the county running from the southeast to the northwest on its way to the Ohio River. In the early 1770s, settlers came to stay in the Kanawha River Valley. In 1788 George Clendenin and his rangers established at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers the first permanent settlement in what became Charleston.

Clendenin pushed for the recognition of a new county in western Virginia and he received this in 1787. Kanawha County was formed from parts of Greenbrier and Montgomery counties. (It was then tine times as large as it is today.)

Daniel Boone was among the small group of pioneers at and near the settlement from the time Fort Lee was erected until Charles Town was established (WPA 1956:181-182). Boone lived with his family in a two-room log cabin at what is now the Kanawha City section of Charleston, within sight of the present capitol grounds. He alternated his hunting and Indian scouting with brief attempts at being a merchant, surveyor, and politician. In 1789 he was elected to the Virginia assembly at Kanawha County's first election in the fall of the same year. He stayed for seven years. In 1795 he returned to Kentucky. When he left Charleston, almost the entire village attended a farewell feast prepared of his favorite game.

Charleston, West Virginia is crowded into narrow valleys where the Elk River joins the Great Kanawha in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The Work Projections Administration guide (p. 179) wrote that during the 1930's Charleston was a rapidly growing trade center for the Great Kanawha Valley, whose resources of coal, oil, gas, and brine rank it high among the nation's chemical and glass centers.

Charleston lays on the northern side of the Kanawha River Valley. The capitol building at Charleston was built in 1885. It was originally located in the center of town three city block in from the river. It was bounded by Washington Street on the north and Lee Street on the south, Capitol Street on the west and Dickinson Street on the east. It was destroyed by fire in 1921.

Workers started construction of a new capitol building in early 1924 on a piece of property east of the old capitol building area. The present state capitol, designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1932, stands on shaded landscaped grounds overlooking the Kanawha River.

From the northeast corner of the old capitol grounds, walking one block east on Washington the traveler would come to the First Baptist Church which faced Shrewsbury Street. It was in the Romanesque style, built in the 1890s, with a crenellated tower instead of a church spire. It was torn down and replaced by the new First Baptist Church at the southeast corner of Lewis and Shrewsbury Streets.

Across Washington Street from the church (between Shrewsbury and Broad Streets) was the seventy-two room Ferguson Hotel, constructed in 1922 by G. E. (Cap) Ferguson. In World War I Cap Ferguson had been the first black officer to command a troop ship to France, hence the nickname. By 1923 he added to the hotel a cafe, barber shop, haberdashery, theater, smoke shop and a ballroom.

Adjoining the Ferguson Hotel, a building was being constructed by black real estate agent Anderson H. Brown. The building extended from Washington Street around the corner to Shrewsbury Street. Eventually, in the building would be a pharmacy, Mr. Brown's real estate office, a beauty shop, a restaurant, a printing shop, barber shop, pool hall, and many other businesses.

Walking north on the east side of Shrewsbury Street, one would come to the parsonage of the First Baptist Church located at the south east corner of Shrewsbury and Lewis Streets. Here is where Rev. Johns lived. (This location today is the site of the new First Baptist Church.)

Across the street from the parsonage was a location that was to be the site of the new Garnet High School for black. The site was chosen in 1927. The school was named for the abolitionist William Henry Garnett.

First Baptist Church, Charleston, West Virginia

The First Baptist Church was chartered February 1, 1868, but the church's roots go back to 1852. Records indicate that between 1865 and 1868 there were three Negro Baptist groups in existence in the Kanawha Valley. Two of them provided both religious and education enrichment in the lives of area residents. They were the African Zion Baptist Church of Tinkersville which was the parent church led by Mr. Lewis Rice, and the Chapel's Hollow group organized by Reverend F. C. James. Chapel's Hollow is now Kanawha City. The third group was the Charleston Mission which had been assembled by Elder J. B. Steptoe.

In 1866, F. C. James was elected pastor of the African Zion Baptist Church in Malden. The following year the founder, Mr. Rice, was nominated for the ministry. The displeasure of members of the Charleston Mission surrounding this action ultimately resulted in the establishment of the Little Zion Baptist Church of Chapel's Hollow, and the First Baptist Church of Charleston. Elder F. C. James served each church as pastor for two Sundays a month. This action clearly established him as the first pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston.

Rev. James served as minister of the First Baptist Church from 1868 to 1871. The early church home was the Charleston "Academy" which was used by the Union Government as a temporary prison for captured Confederate soldiers. Located in the vicinity of Quarrier and Hale Streets, the large hall was surrounded by a protective ten-foot board fence in order to retard attempts at escape. Later, the congregation moved to a one-story, two-room public school house, also on Quarrier Street. It was erected by General Oliver O. Howard's Freedmen's Bureau.

Church records indicate that within five years after the founding of this church, the first church was built. The property was on the Washington Street facing Shrewsbury Street. In 1890 a new structure was built around the old one. This gave the impression of remodeling rather than rebuilding, but it was remodeling that took about five years. The blacks had to do this because the affluent white residents in the neighborhood wanted the property condemned in order to provide a thorough-fare to Quarrier Street.

The pastorate of Reverend Mordecai W. Johnson parallels the third phase of expansion. The church history says that "Inspired leadership and amazing progress are synonymous with his tenure here. The property that we occupy was acquired for the sum of $18,500. During his administration, all financial obligations were liquidated, thus clearing the title for the later erection of the third church. Dr. Johnson resigned his ministry here to accept the position of President of Howard University in Washington, D. C." During his tenure (1917-1926) Dr. Johnson was a prime mover in founding the Charleston Branch NAACP which brought to the city such outstanding performers as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson who rendered concerts for the organization.

Teachers from West Virginian State College, about thirteen miles away, came to the congregation. West Virginia State College is located at Institute, Kanawha County, West Virginia, eight miles west of Charleston. It was originally chartered in 1891 as the West Virginia Colored Institute. In 1915 the present name was adopted. In 1952 the campus consisted of eighty-three acres with thirty-two permanent buildings.

Altona says that they motored to Charleston, West Virginia, where she had the thrill of hearing her husband preach his first Christmas sermon at the First Baptist Church where he had been chosen to succeed Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson.

Johns was a prolific business organizer. He commented in one of his sermons that "When I was at Dr. Mordecai Johnson's apartment in Charleston, West Virginia, I had a thriving fish business, and I don't apologize for it because for every time I got one call about religion, I got forty calls about fish." He went on to relate a story about fish that reveals his earthy humor and common man approach to life. "The incinerator would be closed the next day and I had barrels of the mortality of fish behind the parsonage. That night, in my inventiveness, I went over into the yard and I dug a trench in the middle of it and I deposited the mortality of the remnants of fish. The next spring I happened to be looking out of the parsonage window across the yard, and while there was not a blade of grass nor a flower anywhere in the main area of the yard, I looked down through the center and there was a row of green furbishing grass with everything barren around it. The universe was converting the mortality of fish into life." He also used this humorous incident in his last sermon, "The Romance of Death," to prove the continuance of life.

Altona Trent Johns (Gandy 1977:xii) wrote that "The Farm and City Enterprises which Vernon began to develop came from his belief that Negro people in cities should help their relatives on the family farms with money, holiday, and summer labor. Nothing made him more sad or furious than to see our people come down from the North to their parents' funerals and sell the family farms for a pittance. Most of the time the buyers were whites who were waiting with ready cash to buy at the grave sites."

Gandy (1977:xii) wrote that Vernon Johns "believed that Negro preachers should encourage their members to start businesses, even from small beginnings of their own. Grocery stores were especially favored by him. The preachers should not just encourage the formation of businesses, but should invest in them and help promote them. He felt that encouraging business was a part of being religious. As an example, while pastor of Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia, he inspired the men's Bible class to pool their resources and open a grocery store on Garfield Avenue. It continues to operate. He said often that business, if developed, would create new jobs for us and develop greater race pride in the young as well as old."

Vernon Johns Marries Altona Trent

Altona's father was William Johnson Trent, Sr. a religious educator and college president. He received a B.A. (1898) and M.A. (1910) from Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. During his student days, he sang in the first musical group which toured to raise money for the college. They performed at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895 when Booker T. Washington made his famous address.

Altona Trent at age 3

From 1899 to 1900 he was president of Greenville Junior College in Tennessee. Then in 1900 he began a long period with the Y.M.C.A. He was first associated with them from 1900 to 1911 in Asheville, North Carolina, and then in Atlanta from 1911 to 1925. In Atlanta he helped establish the Atlanta Urban League and the Atlanta School of Social Work (1925). He was also an organizer of the first national NAACP meeting held in the South.

In 1904 Trent married Annie Bell Mitchell of Asheville. The couple had a daughter, Altona Trent (born December 21, 1904). A member of the Atlanta black aristocracy, she graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. from Atlanta University in 1925. Altona became a pianist and music teacher of some renown, as well as a well-known composer of children's songs.

In 1925 William Trent became president of Livingstone College, the beginning of a run of thirty-two years in that office. He studied in summer at the University of Chicago, 1926-1928. While with Livingstone College, in 1951 he became Salisbury City Board's first black member. He also became a member of the Southern Inter-racial Commission. In 1957 he retired from the presidency, and died in 1963 near the age of ninety.

The first time Altona met Vernon was in 1919 at Kittrell College, Kittrell, North Carolina where he had been invited to be the worship leader at a Southern Regional Girl Reserve Y.W.C.A. summer conference. The object of the Girls' Reserve Movement was to provide help for any young girl "having a Christian purpose . . . to live as a Christian." Altona was sent as the delegate from the Atlanta, Wheatly Y.W.C.A. where it was a thrill for her to join about one hundred other high school girls. (She was only fifteen years old at the time.)

She was in the Bible classes taught daily by Vernon Johns. One day, due to some emergency, the lady in charge of music could not be present, so Altona was pressed into service to play the piano. "Vernon would give me hymns and spirituals a day before to practice."

Altona did not see Vernon again until August 1926, when she was twenty-two years old. She had come to her birthplace, Asheville, North Carolina to visit her uncle and aunt, Dr. and Mrs. John W. Walker. The Girl Reserve secretary had resigned unexpectedly and there was no one to take thirty-five Girl Reserves to the Southern Regional Conference held that year at Lincoln Academy, King's Mountain, North Carolina. Miss Adela Ruffin, the Executive Secretary, asked her to become the Girl Reserve secretary for the summer.

Altona may have remembered the date wrong because the paper in 1926 says the conference was for the ten days from June 22 to July 2 (J&G July 7, 1926:5). Norfolk sent nine delegates that year to the conference. Miss Carolyn Dungee gave an account of the conference for the paper. At 6:30 they would awaken to the rising bell. Exercises consisting of "ordinary physical culture" from 7:15 to 7:30. Breakfast from 7:30 to 8:50. A flag honoring ceremony, which consisted of saluting the flag and singing one verse of a patriotic song from 8:55 to 9:00. Morning Assembly, from 9:10 to 9:40, consisted of a series of biblical addresses given by the Rev. Mr. Johns of Lynchburg, Virginia. His addresses were preceded by a few Girl Reserve songs.

Group Discussion Meetings were held from 9:45 to 10:45. "In these meetings, our main subject was: ‘Belonging to the Great Human Family.' This subject was divided into sub-topics of work, fun and good times, and friendships. Under friendship they talked about friendship with boys and the ‘harm' of social dancing and kissing. She added in parentheses: "Anybody caring to find out the harm in these faults, may do so through personal letters to me." Furthermore she added "These subjects being just what most girls talk about, especially during their adolescent period, caused us to have exceedingly lively discussions."

From 10:45 to 11:45 the girls had recreation, while the adults had their council hour. Between 11:45 and 12:45 the girls had their council hour, in which they discussed the things that would improve their clubs. At 1:00 o'clock we had dinner, during which time we took turns yelling and singing our songs. We were free then until 2:00 o'clock, which was the beginning of quiet hour. It lasted until 3:00, but was later changed from 2:30 to 3:30. At 6:00 we had supper. From 8:00 to 9:00 we had our evening program which varied. For instance, one night we had a mock installation service, another, folk dances, and another, we were entertained by the recreational committee. At 10:00 p.m. the lights were out."

According to Miss Dungee's report, close friendships were formed at the conference. "On July 1, every meeting which brought us nearer to the close of the conference made most of us lose our appetites, because we hated the thoughts of losing our new friends and good times. We had candle light services that night and only a very few could restrain from allowing a sob or two to escape their lips."

At the first evening meal Vernon and Altona were standing at tables at diagonal ends of the dining room. "Instead of bowing our heads as we should have done to sing the grace, both of us looked around to see who was present. Our eyes met and it was truly ‘love at first sight' as we smiled at each other. At this time, he was serving as Pastor of the Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia, and teaching theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and College in that city."

Vernon visited her in September at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina, where she had accepted the position as music teacher. They also were at her home on the Livingstone College campus in Salisbury, North Carolina.

Against a background of huge ferns and in the soft light of numerous white candles, Altona and Vernon married quietly on her birthday, December 21, 1927 in her parents' home in Salisbury, attended by Reverend J. Raymond Henderson, Vernon's best man, her brother Bill Trent, Mildred Greenwood (Hall) and Ruth Wheeler (Lowe), her childhood friends in Atlanta (J&G December 31, 1927:10). The ceremony was performed by Dr. W. H. Goler, President Emeritus of Livingstone College, assisted by Rev. J. C. Taylor of Salisbury.

The Journal and Guide (November 15, 1927:5) reported that Rev. J. Raymond Henderson of Philadelphia was a visiting minister at the First Baptist Church in Norfolk. His college work was done at Union University in Richmond, his seminary work at Oberlin, Ohio, and Union Seminary, New York City. Among his teachers have been such widely known men as Drs. Kemper Fullerton, Henry Sloan Coffin, and Harry Emerson Fosdick. Now he is pastoring the Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in west Philadelphia, having recently come to this field from the associated pastorship of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in New York.

Before the ceremony, Prof. F. D. White sang D'Hardelot's "Because" accompanied by Mrs. Clarice Michaels. When all was quiet, Lohengren's Wedding March was struck up and the bridesmaid, Ruth Wheeler, of Atlanta, entered with the groomsman, William J. Trent, Jr., the bride's brother. Ms. Wheeler wore a buffont blue flowered taffeta dress and gold slippers and bore a sheaf of white rose buds. Then the maid of honor, Miss Mildred Greenwood, of Atlanta, entered. She wore a bouffant pink taffeta dress with pink velvet bodice and pink satin slippers and carried a corsage of pale-pink rose buds. A hushed silence fell over the room and the music became softer as the bride entered leaning on her father's arm. She met the groom who was accompanied by the best man, Rev. Henderson, at the altar. The bride wore a white georgette dress embroidered with rhinestones and silver brocaded slippers; she carried a bride's shower of white rose buds and sweet peas. All of the male members of the bridal party wore dark suits and boutonnieres of white rose buds.

Among the out-of-town guests were: President and Mrs. Bluford of A.&T., Greensboro; President and Mrs. D. D. Jones of Bennett College, Greensboro; Dr. and Mrs. E. F. Tyson, Mrs. Cora Booton, and Mrs. M. Dunn of Charlotte; Dr. and Mrs. J. W. Walker, Mr. and Mrs. George Richards, and Miss Ruffin of Asheville; and Miss Claudia Butler of Augusta, Georgia.

The wedding reception was held immediately after the wedding at the president's residence. During the hubbub that followed the ceremony, the bride and groom slipped away. They motored to the groom's home in Charleston, West Virginia, and from there, they went to an Alpha Phi Alpha conclave in Cleveland.

Alpha Phi Alpha is the oldest college Greek-letter society for Negroes (J&G May 7, 1932:16). It has nearly one hundred chapters. The thirteenth annual nation-wide effort designed to interest students in continuing their education and their parents in helping them. The program was instituted some twelve years earlier following the presentation of statistics at a convention of the fraternity showing that education definitely made for better citizenship, greater efficiency, happiness, and service, and that all groups were not taking advantage of the opportunity of acquiring these desired ends. The fraternity emphasized that every boy and girl should receive enough education to fit into the rather complex modern scheme of life most successfully.

Altona had her children in two sets. First she had three boys, followed by three girls. The boys were Vernon, Jr., (1928); William Trent (Billie) (1930); and John Summerall (1933); the three girls were Altona Adelaide (1935); Rachel Enid (1936); and Jeanne Joyce (1938). One time Vernon took the train to New Rochelle to seek Mrs. Boddie's advice on child rearing (Boddie 1972:62-63). He said "Sister Boddie, give me some pearls of wisdom that will assist me in the successful bringing up of my three boys." She did so, but a month later he came back to her. He said that "I have discovered the best pedagogy that can be used in the most effective handling of my boys." She said "What is it, Dr. Johns?" "Kill' em," he roared.

Vernon Johns Leaves Charleston

It must have been a shock to Vernon's new wife. For having motored to Charleston in December 1927, Altona found that her husband resigned as of January 1, 1928. Vernon Johns had lasted only eleven months in Charleston.

Once again, we do not know the circumstances under which Vernon Johns left Charleston. The church history only mentions that "Perhaps the most scholarly among the ministers to follow Dr. Johnson was the Reverend Vernon Johns. Undoubtedly his brilliant oratory more than compensated for the often controversial personality that he displayed."

October 20, 1928 mention was made of Vernon Johns's successor at the First Baptist Church, Rev. J. Raymond Henderson, who appeared as a speaker in Norfolk. (J&G October 20, 1928:2) Henderson remained for two years (1928-1930). He later became pastor of the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California.

 

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