PART IV. VERNON JOHNS BEGINS HIS CAREER

CHAPTER 10. VERNON JOHNS AT COURT STREET BAPTIST STREET, 1920-1926

The Rise of Blatant Racism in the United States

In 1919 there were a series of race riots, twenty-six of them in fact (Buni 1967:71 and Egerton 1994:46-47). They occurred in places like Washington D.C., Chicago, and Knoxville. In 1919 seventy Southern blacks, some still wearing the uniform of their country, were shot, beaten, or burned to death by lynch mobs. Lynchings increased sharply, with thirty-six Negro victims in 1917, seventy-six in 1919, and fifty-nine in 1921.

The 1920s may have been good economically for whites in the United States, but they were not so good for minorities. The 1920s saw the renewal of nativist movements and the passage of restrictive immigration legislation. The situation was worse in the South where even the liberals paid lip service to the doctrine of separate- but-equal. Throughout the 1920s, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation was just about the only Southern organization with any effectiveness in opposing racial violence in the region and that organization had very limited success (Egerton 1994:46&48).

Anti-lynching Campaigns

The NAACP began the legal battle to terminate lynching in the United States in the first decade of the 1900s. Ida Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) became chairman of the Anti-Lynching League. She was one of two black women, the other being Mary Church Terrell, who on February 12, 1909, the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, signed "The Call" for a meeting "To Discuss Means for Securing Political and Civil Equality for the Negro".

In 1921 congressman Lemidas Dyer, Republican from Missouri, decided to introduce a bill to punish the crime of lynching. The measure was referred to the Judiciary Committee and reported out favorably on October 20. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Law created a considerable amount of interest in the black community, but the "solid South" with its powerful political machine was able to block the passage of the bill in the Senate through an extensive filibuster. Consequently, the Republican leaders agreed to withdraw the bill on December 2.

In his sermon Rock Foundations Johns (1977) mentions the seemingly contradictory situation wherein the South is unquestionably the chief seat of religious orthodoxy but at the same time is the home of the nation's most heartless inhumanities. In the South, he said, crimes like those at Aiken and Wytheville recur as regularly as Holy Communion.

Lynching was a continuous problem in the South for blacks. But the events at Wytheville, Virginia and Aiken, South Carolina were particularly heinous and reiterate just how much brutality racism allows men to express. The Norfolk Journal and Guide on August 28, 1926 said that the Virginia press unanimously denounced the Wytheville lynching. A black man, Raymond Bird, charged with an offense involving a young white woman, was in jail at Wytheville. The police knew a mob wanted Bird and yet did nothing to prevent subsequent events. The mob burst into the jail, fired a volley of bullets into the sleeping prisoner's head, beat the victim's head to a pulp, tied the mangled corpse to an auto and dragged it nine miles to the place where the mob suspended it from a tree and riddled it with bullets.

On October 23, 1926 the Norfolk Journal and Guide reported that South Carolina citizens denounced Aiken for the slaying of three members of the black Lowman family, two men and one woman. Afraid that the Lowmans were not going to be prosecuted successfully for the murder of a white sheriff, a mob lynched the three early on October 8. On November 6, 1926 (J&G:1&13) the paper reported that Walter White of the NAACP had uncovered a reign of terror around Aiken. He discovered that the lynchings had been planned ahead of time by the KKK and that the police had handed the victims over to the mob. Taking the three to their places of execution, one victim jumped out of the car, whence he was shot and then dragged a mile behind the car. One of the members of the mob said that Bertha was the "hardest to kill." Shot, she dragged herself across the ground "bleating like a goat." She begged so piteously for her life that members of the enraged mob had to shoot her numerous times before one of the shots found its mark and silenced her.

Carter Glass and Lynchburg

Lynchburg was home to Carter Glass (1858-1946), US senator, former Secretary of the Treasury, and author of the Federal Reserve Act. Carter Glass was born in Lynchburg and became Secretary of the Treasury under President Woodrow Wilson. Glass served as Virginia State Senator from 1899-1902, in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1902-1918, and represented Virginia in the U.S. Senate from 1920-1946. He lived in a classic-revival house at 605 Clay Street near both his birthplace and his church, the Court Street Methodist Church.

As a young man, he became an apprentice printer (Edmunds 1972:59). He later became a newspaper editor. Subsequently, the Lynchburg presses were to be in Glass family hands for at least five generations. The brother of Carter Glass, Edward C. Glass, was supervisor of schools in Lynchburg. His sister, Dr. Meta Glass, was president of Sweet Briar College. Another sister, Mrs. Blair Bannister, was Assistant-Treasurer of the United States.

In 1900 State Senator Glass, then a Lynchburg newspaper editor, was just beginning a long and stormy career in Virginia politics. Glass was the chief architect of the franchise article of the Constitution of 1902. Disfranchisement of the Negro, he said, would "simplify the race problem and end political rascality." He joined with other Virginia editors in unsparingly and excessively denouncing the Underwood Constitution of 1869. Elimination of the Negro vote to the maximum degree possible was the intention from the outset, a fact made abundantly clear by Glass. He termed Negro enfranchisement "a crime to begin with and a wretched failure to the end" (Dabney 1956:430&436). The Virginia Constitution of 1902 also formally arranged racially segregated schools.

With disfranchisement in 1902, the G.O.P. grasped the opportunity to shake itself loose from the "party of the Negro" label it had borne since Reconstruction (Buni 1967: 41&50-51). Virginia Republicans watched with interest the successful establishment of a "lily-white" party in North Carolina and were quick to follow suit. From 1905 to 1916 blacks were excluded from the Republican Party in Virginia. And from 1922 to 1928 Virginia blacks were adrift toward the Democratic Party.

Even though Republicans tried to shake the blacks, the Democrats still used the race card against them, saying they were the party of the Negroes (Buni 1967:53). The capstone of the 1905 gubernatorial race was furnished by Carter Glass, who ridiculed Lewis' attempt to depict the G.O.P. as the "New Republican party" or "white man's party." Quipped Glass: "I answer, we have the same sort of Republican party in Virginia which existed before the Negro was eliminated. We whipped them then and will whip them worse without their Negro allies. Oh, but they say it is a new party. My friends, it is the same old Republican party minus the dehorned darkey."

In 1920 Carter Glass easily won election for U.S. Senator. He ran against black attorney Joseph R. Pollard, who was state and Richmond chairman of the black faction of the G.O.P. Virginia Negroes severed relations completely with the regular G.O.P. beginning in 1921 and then ran a full slate of colored candidates for state offices. The Negroes were not united behind the fight. Leading the opposition was P. B. Young of the Norfolk Journal and Guide. He complained that the lily-black candidates had drawn a color line by excluding whites from their party plans, thereby stirring racial antagonisms. The movement ended about as quickly as it began with disappointing election results. Negroes again faded into the political background, not to reappear until the white primary in 1929 (Buni 1967:80,85&69-70).

Senator Glass opposed appropriation for Howard University. Virginia's senior senator lined up with the opposition when the appropriation bill for $591,000 dollars was before the senate. Senator Overman, a Democrat from North Carolina, contended that Congress had no right to appropriate the money of taxpayers to private institutions. Senator Glass contended that this appropriation constituted race discrimination. "What is this but racial distinction?" he asked. "Does the Senator from Maryland (Bruce, Democrat) dream for one moment that if Howard University turned out white dentists the Congress of the United States would appropriate for it?" (J&G March 14, 1925:1&6)

Senator Bruce declared that "There is nobody in the United States who believes more completely than I do in drawing a hard and fast line of social distinction between the Negro and the white race; and I am not moved in the slightest degree by any political considerations, because in the State of Maryland only a handful of Negroes, if any, so far as I know, ever vote the Democratic ticket. I say, however, that we have this race on our hands; we owe them a duty; and this is entirely in keeping with the policy of the government for years back to make an appropriation of this kind."

Carter Glass was not all bad for he fought against the Virginia machine, controlled by Senator Thomas Staples Martin, who had great antipathy toward Woodrow Wilson (Edmunds 1972:66-67). Glass campaigned unceasingly against the Martin machine. Rival papers allowed him no advertising space. All were afraid of what Glass had to say in his papers. He succeeded in weakening the machine, although the Byrd political machine was considered its outgrowth. Gates (1964: 13) wrote that "Politics in Virginia revolves around the state's senior United States senator and partisan patriarch, Harry Flood Byrd. He is acknowledged leader of the ‘organization,' or dominant faction of Virginia's Democratic party, a position he assumed in 1925."

Bishop James Cannon, Jr. was the head of the powerful Anti-Saloon League (Edmund 1972:84-85). Glass was against liquor, but wanted to continue support to the Democrats despite their support for liquor. In the 1928 presidential campaign Bishop Cannon accused Glass of political expediency in Glass's own Court Street Methodist Church. Mrs. Glass vowed that she would never again set foot in the Court Street Church. She then concerned herself with the Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church near her farm.

Pastor of Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg: 1920-1926

Vernon Johns started his pastorate at the Court Street Baptist Church on May 19, 1920. As a child, Mrs. Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) knew Vernon Johns. She said she was there when the congregation offered Johns $75 dollars a month to preach at Court Street Baptist Church.

Court Street Baptist Church

The interior of Court Street Baptist Church

Vernon Johns pastored the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, one of the oldest black congregations in the South, and won a reputation as a dramatic pulpiteer. Vernon Johns was to prove a memorable preacher (Yeakey 1979:102). His photographic memory stood him in good stead. He would write his sermons on scraps of paper, shirt boxes, or any other piece of paper at his immediate disposal. Once they were written and arranged he delivered them from memory. He never read his sermons, not even the quotes. He quoted scripture verbatim.

The Court Street Church is a brick church located on a street full of churches as well as the old courthouse that now serves as the Lynchburg Museum. It is located at the crest of the hill arising from the valley of the James River. Like Virginia Theological Seminary, the church is located on a small hilltop.

This church has the distinction of being the oldest black congregation in the city (Wiley 1976:26). It is situated on the southwest corner of Court and Sixth Streets. In 1830 there was an old abandoned theater on the site. In 1843 there were 197 black members of the First Baptist Church. The church decided that there were so many black members that they deemed it "expedient and necessary to provide for the colored people a separate house of worship." The property was bought for a black church, the first in Lynchburg. Previously, they were members of the various white churches.

The first ministers were white. The dedicatory sermon was in 1844 and given by Rev. A. Clopton. The Reverend John Mason was the first pastor of the newly formed church. He was succeeded by the Rev. Clopton, who served until he died in 1863. Rev. Clopton thought that he was especially called to do this work, so he gave up the pastorate of the First Baptist Church and undertook it . Chaplain J. L. Johnson was the third and last white pastor of the church. After the Civil War the church called black pastors. The first church of the congregation was destroyed by fire and the present church building was erected in 1879. The Court Street Baptist Church is listed on the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. The church was instrumental in having the Virginia Theological Seminary and College established in Lynchburg and is responsible for nurturing many other churches of the denomination.

Vernon Johns wrote Professor Fiske of Oberlin telling of his efforts in business. In a typed business letter telling of the company, dated March 1920, the text said: "The Southern Mercantile and Development Company has been organized so that the many of us can unite our money in conducting a large and profitable business under honest and efficient leadership; and thus, turn the millions spent by our people back into the Race."

In a hand written letter to Fiske, Johns said "Our company has before it a wholly unworked field. We have in the management three Oberlin graduates, two Hillsdale men, and one Phi Beta Kappa from Bowdoin along with some hard headed old conservatives who have considerable business experience . . ." He added: "I am preaching the ‘Social Gospel.' It is very, very pleasant to remember Oberlin."

On March 22, 1920, Professor Fiske (Oberlin archives) wrote back saying: "Your recent letter was quite a surprise to me and I was interested in it at once. I hope you will have a real success in this venture for I do not in the least doubt there is a great field for it. I was wondering where you were for I had not heard from you for some time. Are you preaching occasionally in addition to this work, or giving your whole time to the latter?"

Johns replied on August 5, 1920: ". . . I am glad to say that I have not. I am related to the business mostly as prophet and dreamer, leaving the more practical affairs to those who have more time and love for details."

He added "I am at present, pastor of the oldest and one of the largest colored churches in Virginia. I might add also that it is frequently called the Minister's Slaughter House. It is a fact that no pastor during the past forty years has been able to say, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.' My sailing at present is smooth with no clouds in sight, and my prayer is that I may do some good on the voyage and at least be granted a safe harbor."

"I need all the Church Administration which I left out of my course at Oberlin. Will you please furnish me with a list of good readings on the subject?" "I am enclosing a check for $20.00 to be put to my account. It was my intention to send it earlier, but Satan hindered. Can Drs. Bosworth and Hutchins be reached at their Oberlin addresses now? Do you know Gilett's African address?" He signed off with the salutation: "Always remembering your great kindness and sympathy and the rich value of your instruction in the good old Oberlin days, I am, yours faithfully."

Fiske wrote back on August 11, 1920 saying that he was glad that Johns was still preaching. He added: "You will be surprised that professor Hutchins has left us and is now President William J. Hutchins, D.D., Berea College, Berea, Kentucky. He will be glad to hear from you I am sure. Dr. Bosworth is still in Oberlin and will probably be here the rest of the summer and then he starts on his sabbatical leave for one semester. . . . I have sent your check to Treasurer Thurston and he will doubtless mail you a receipt."

After having received news that Dr. Bosworth was still at Oberlin, Johns wrote him on August 17, 1920: "I think of you very often while I am working away down here and must reserve the right to add a letter occasionally to the already large number of letters which you have to read. I saw you through your office window when I was in Oberlin on commencement day, but learned to my surprise a little later that you had left Oberlin for the West."

"I am enjoying my work in Lynchburg. I taught during the last school year at the school from which I came to Oberlin. Since the first of June I have been pastor of the Court Street church in this same city. . . . The school is making great progress and there are so many Oberlinites on the faculty now that we are thinking of forming an Oberlin Club." He added: "I believe I am the only member of The Class who is single. I am beginning now to feel that I as well as my brothers have a right to lead about a wife. . . . "

The next letter we have from Johns to Oberlin is addressed to Drs. Bosworth or Fiske, saying: "Please send me a statement of the balance which I owe the Students Loan Fund and I shall forward the amount. I thought I would have paid this amount long ago, but I find that I am doing a number of things much slower than I intended!" He added "I am having a fine time preaching. I go back frequently to my memory of Oberlin fellowship for inspiration and help."

Johns wrote Fiske again February 20, 1923: "You must have shaken your head again and again as you have looked at the fifty dollars of the amount forwarded by me during my long ago student days -- still unpaid. Frankly I am ashamed of it but I am going to wipe out the stain someday. I certainly will. More than two years ago I organized a business movement. It was necessary and it is a success. The most moneyed were in the enterprise -- withdrew after the firm had assumed heavy obligations and to save our credit I have had to put nearly all my earnings into the business. We are now getting over the strain just appearing with this year's withdrawal, and the business is beginning to yield returns and I shall be able very soon to recover my money. I recognize the debt to O.G.S.T. as one of my most legitimate obligations and shall pay it some day with great joy." He added a note at the bottom: I am enjoying preaching more and more. I shall let you know something soon of the things ‘done in the way.'"

On May 16, 1921 Washington D.C. hosted the fifty-fourth annual session of the Virginia Baptist State Convention. T. J. King was reelected president. Other officers included J. H. Ashby of Norfolk, S. A. Brown of Petersburg, S. N. Daughtry of Carrsville, J. H. Harvey of Farmville, vice-president, W. H. R. Powell of Pittsburgh recording secretary, Deacon A. Humbles treasurer, R. H. Bowling of Norfolk auditor, and Dr. A. A. Galvin chairman of the board of trustees. The principal address was given by the president of Virginia Seminary, R. C. Woods. (J&G May 21, 1921:1) The Administration Hall of Virginia Seminary was nearing completion, but President Woods was in need of more money. (J&G November 26, 1921:5)

The first notice in the Journal and Guide concerning Vernon Johns noted that Professor Vernon Johns of the Court Street Baptist church and Virginia Seminary gave an address at an afternoon session of the Virginia State Baptist Convention held in Danville, Virginia. (J&G May 20, 1922:1)

The paper (J&G October 14, 1922:1) also discussed other preachers of note. Dr. W. H. Moses, pastor of the National Baptist Church, New York City, who had been preaching at the First Baptist Church Norfolk during the week would return for another week of service. "Dr. Moses has been for a number of years in great demand as a speaker by both white and colored audiences." Dr. Moses built one of the finest churches in Virginia, where he pastored for ten years. He subsequently pastored in South Carolina, Tennessee and Philadelphia, from whence he came to New York. At that time he had twenty years in the pastorate. He was president of Nelson Merry College in Tennessee, Guadelaupe College in Texas and a member of the college board ever since his graduation. The paper considered Dr. Moses one of the brightest lights ever turned out by Virginia Seminary (J&G November 18, 1922:1). In addition to having been Field Secretary to the Foreign Mission Board, which enabled him to travel from coast to coast helping to promote missions, he was elected corresponding secretary of the Virginia Baptist State Convention when he left college which position made him chief director of the educational and missionary drives.

Rev. W. H. R. Powell, pastor of the Carron Street Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the special preacher in the present series of evangelistic services at the First Baptist Church of Norfolk. The Reverend Mr. Powell is a graduate of Virginia Seminary at Lynchburg, and of Lincoln University. He has held several successful pastorates and is a convincing and pleasing speaker. Large crowds are hearing him each night (J&G April 21, 1923:9). W. H. R. Powell gave one of the addresses at the Virginia State Baptist Convention held May 9-13, 1923. Rev. Dr. W. F. Graham of Philadelphia, a life member and the educational secretary of the convention, responded to some of the addresses. M. C. Allen of Danville was the corresponding secretary. Deacon Humbles was the treasurer. There was no mention of Vernon Johns at the convention that year (J&G May 2, 1922:1).

There was also no mention of Vernon Johns for the great Baptist second jubilee in June of 1924. The Virginia State Baptist Convention held its Jubilee Session in Lynchburg, June 24-29. This marked another seven years of progress (J&G June 21, 1924:1). One of the speakers was Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, honor graduate from Harvard University and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, West Virginia.

The paper (J&G June 21, 1924:1&6) said that Dr. Kelly Miller recently characterized Virginia Seminary as the outstanding achievement among Negroes of what they have done educationally independent of assistance from the white race. It counts in its faculty some of the most prepared men and women sent out from the larger northern colleges. One of its professors in the theological faculty is the recognized authority in America on the religion of the native Haitian.

Rev. C. P. Madison stated there are many undesirable men in this city and next Sunday he would preach a sermon that will cause them to wonder if it is not time to make their exit. (J&G March 22, 1924) In a sermon addressed to men only last Sunday afternoon at Second Calvary Baptist Church, Rev. C. P. Madison, excoriated moral degeneracy as manifested in sex parasites and lecherousness. Dr. Madison had announced as the subject of his sermon, "The Man who Ought to Leave Town." The preacher specifically attacked a class of men who he charged are scumming a livelihood from the debauchery of womanhood; men who he said, deliver women of their race into the hands of men who hold for them not only a social scorn, but a lust of passion (J&G March 29, 1924:10)

Rev. Richard H. Bowling is in Charleston, West Virginia, this week where he is assisting Rev. Mordecai Johnson in conducting a revival. News comes to this city that his efforts have been crowned with preeminent success. Among the active workers in the campaign are said to be some of the most prominent citizens of the town including Mrs. C. H. James, wealthy wholesale produce dealer; Prof. Boyd, the high school principal; Dr. Gambrell, one of the leading physicians, and Mr. T. G. Nutter, the colored member of the West Virginia State Legislature (J&G April 19, 1924:1).

In 1867 the Colored Baptists of Virginia formed into the Virginia Baptist State Convention. The present president is Reverend T. J. King. They will hold a Sabbatical Jubilee at Virginia Seminary June 24-29, 1924 (J&G May 24, 1924:6).

While at Court Street Baptist Church, Vernon Johns taught theology at Virginia Seminary. More specifically, he taught homiletics. He was listed as a teacher at Virginia 1921-1922. It seems somewhat odd that a school who threw out a student for rebelliousness would now hire that same person as a member of the faculty. But that is what they did. And, predictably, the association did not last long for the college had to throw him out again. For just what is not known. But the specific circumstances probably do not matter, because Vernon Johns was just too outspoken to be handled by any American institution.

Vernon Johns Leaves Court Street Baptist Church

In 1925 Vernon Johns was listed in the telephone directory as pastor of Court Street Baptist Church and president of the Southern Mercantile Co. Inc. He lived at 57 Polk Street. His company was located on Campbell Avenue corner of Dewitt. He was president, while Davis Taylor was secretary, and James Johns treasurer.

We do not know exactly when Vernon Johns left Court Street Baptist Church nor do we know the causes. But we can be sure it was probably a combination of the reasons for which he was fired from all of his jobs: social and political outspokenness and selling goods. Speaking of Vernon Johns, Chauncey Spencer said Johns "fell out with the Court Street church. They wanted him just to be a minister and Johns, of course, never wanted that. He used to sell silk stockings and fish and other items." Usually the selling of goods gave the church a convenient rationalization for the firing. This way the church could rid itself of a critic, while appearing to be primarily concerned about the heretic's social behavior.

A possible hint of the problems Johns ran into appeared in the paper. Virginia Hughes had an old article, probably from the local white Lynchburg paper, that carried the headline "Court Street Negro Pastor is Condemned". The paper said that a committee of the Virginia Baptist Convention of Virginia recommended that the "hand of fellowship" be withdrawn from Rev. C.(sic) N. Johns, pastor of Court Street Baptist Church. The committee issued the statement that Johns "has seriously misrepresented and slandered the Virginia Baptist state convention, the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, and the trustees and teachers."

The executive board of the Virginia Baptist State convention agreed with the recommendation. They said that they had futilely tried to reconcile with Rev. Johns and recommended that Johns "shall not participate in this convention until sufficient reparation has been made." Dr. A. A. Galvin, chairman of the board of trustees, and C. T. Murray signed the board recommendation.

The history of the Court Street Baptist Church (1960:10) writes that Johns "was sought out by many organizations of the country for lecturing services which kept him constantly traveling to meet these speaking engagements, so that the had no time for pastoral work in the church. This failure to measure up to the requirements of the church caused such dissatisfaction among the members so that very little was accomplished in the organization of the church during his administration. However, Rev. Johns must be given credit for organizing the church congregation into groups according to the various communities from which the membership came."

Johns must have been looking for other work as early as April 10, 1926 for in the files at Oberlin College there is a letter of recommendation for Johns from Professor Fiske of Oberlin to Mr. Walter H. Byrd of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his letter Fiske says of Johns: "I am very happy to have the opportunity to recommend him to your church as a most promising candidate for your pastorate. I regard Mr. Johns as one of the most efficient and capable young ministers of my acquaintance. He made a splendid record for scholarship and ability at the Oberlin School of Theology, and I have followed his career since with real personal interest."

"His personality is agreeable, dignified and very effective. He has well developed characteristics of genuine leadership. He is deeply religious with a genuine sincerity of Christian purpose. If you call him to your pastorate, he will not only be a commanding preacher, one of the outstanding preachers of your city, but a man who will be recognized as a real leader and a citizen of recognized influence in the community. I can recommend him unreservedly."

Vernon Johns largely disappears from the Norfolk Journal and Guide until 1927 when he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Charleston, West Virginia. The paper (J&G June 26, 1926:8) merely says that Rev. V. N. Johns is pastor of Court Street Baptist church.

 

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