CHAPTER 15. VERNON JOHNS FORCED OUT OF VIRGINIA SEMINARY

Threat of a Student Strike

December 31, 1932 (p. 16) the Journal and Guide carried an article on student strikes at black colleges. There were strikes by students at Fisk, Howard, Hampton, Lincoln, and others. Howard University continued to hold the spotlight as the scene of wrangling between opposing elements in the administrative body. Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois charged Emmet Scott, secretary treasurer of the university, with responsibility for attempting to oust Dr. Johnson. In 1934 there was a student strike at Virginia State College (J&G May 26, 1934:1), a threatened student strike at Atlanta University School of Social Work (J&G July 21, 1934:20), and a student strike nearing at Howard University Law School (J&G December 15, 1934:1).

Troubles soon came to Virginia Seminary also. On December 9, 1933 (p. 1) the Journal and Guide reported on considerable student discontent at the institution. The seething cauldron of unrest which had been brewing on the local college campus since the beginning of the current school year reached the boiling point when the students, after a lengthy conference in the college chapel, decided to strike until Dr. Johns was dismissed.

The threat of a strike precipitated a joint meeting of the board of trustees and the Virginia Baptist State Convention in Petersburg on November 28 and 29. At this meeting the student body, represented by W. B. Crocker, council president, E. H. Jackson, and John D. Bogle, all members of the senior class, presented a letter from the Student Council in which the immediate removal of President Johns was demanded on the grounds of incompetence.

The students and faculty of Virginia Seminary charged Johns with being autocratic, selfish, and generally incompetent. Dr. Johns was accused of being "an unbearable autocrat who has no respect for student opinions individually or collectively unless they coincide with his own." He was also flayed for compelling work students to spend several days out of each week on his farm, working from fourteen to sixteen hours a day, without giving them any definite compensation for their labors. The students pointed out that since Dr. Johns came into office five years ago, Virginia Seminary and College had gradually lost its rating in the state and that last year it was dropped completely from the list of accredited schools in Virginia. Furthermore, they pointed out that enrollment in the theological department, considered the very foundation of the school, had shrunk to negligible proportions. The student letter also complained that neither the high school nor the college had a standardized curriculum and that the college department had been without a dean the entire school year. The student demands, as listed by their representatives, follow:

We want a president whose presence on the campus will be a source of joy and not intense displeasure.

We want a president who will not regard students and trustees as enemies of the school simply because they oppose or object to certain of his policies or actions.

We want a president who will not convert classrooms into coal bins and chicken houses.

We want a president who will so standardize the work done that it will be approved by the state board of education; and will restore the theological and teacher-training departments.

We want a president whose remarks to students in chapel services will be advisory and not adverse criticism or lambaste.

We want a president who will not stoop to the use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing the students in chapel services and in the presence of young women on the campus.

We want a president who will not exact athletic fees from students and then refuse to provide athletic equipment adequate to the needs arising and transportation for our athletes.

We want a president who will not force students by the use of unreasonable means to work or comply with his inconsistent demands.

At the meeting at Petersburg, the students reported that Johns had made no denial of the accusations directed at him. Instead, they asserted, he very heatedly flayed E. H. Jackson and expressed doubt as to the authenticity of the letter purporting to have come from the student body. The convention referred the student grievances to the board of control for consideration at the scheduled December 7th meeting in Lynchburg.

Warrant Issued for Student Leader's Arrest

Campus unrest at Virginia Seminary reached a climax when the student body refused to attend classes until Vernon Johns was removed from office. The actual strike came as a result of the failure of the November joint meeting to take action upon certain student grievances presented by the student delegation. One hundred and fifty students went on strike for the removal of President Johns from office. The strike began quietly and without disorder and gained momentum toward the end of the first day, when long lines of students paraded in throngs to and fro across the campus with placards across their backs reading: "Down With Johns!" "If Johns Stays We Leave!" and "We Want a New Deal!"

Feelings between the administration and students became more tense on December 2 when Vernon Johns swore out a warrant for the arrest of E. H. Jackson, a member of the student delegation which bitterly criticized Johns before the meeting of the board of trustees. The warrant charged trespassing and stated that Jackson had refused to leave the campus upon being ordered to do so by the president. A near-riot was narrowly averted when students armed with clubs and table legs, threatened violence when police officers came upon the campus to serve the warrant. Violence was averted because by this time Jackson was not on campus. He later gave himself up to the police upon hearing of the warrant. He was released on his personal recognizance. (The charges of trespassing placed against Jackson were dropped when Johns failed to appear in court.)

President Johns left the city immediately after obtaining the warrant and could not be reached for comment. The paper later discovered that Johns had gone to Charleston, West Virginia to be a witness in a case growing out of a train-auto accident in which Dr. Gamble lost his life and Rev. C. E. Jones of Newport News was severely injured.

Board of Control Meets

Johns returned for the December 7 meeting of the board of control appointed at a special meeting of the Virginia Baptist State Convention at Petersburg (J&G December 16, 1933:1) . The board was authorized to iron out difficulties between faculty, students, and the president. When the trustees began to arrive they found that the trees and buildings on campus were virtually loaded with signs and placards denouncing the reign of President Johns. Throngs of students marched both day and night with signs across their shoulders reading "If Johns stays, we leave." The strike, which was characterized by a program of non-violence, gained rapid momentum when the faculty, previously a neutral group from the standpoint of asking the removal of Dr. Johns, cast their lot with the students, and instituted certain demands.

Among the major things asked for by the faculty were that an effort be made to standardize the school and place it on the accredited list of colleges; that a definite check be made on the finances of the school; that the president stick to a program of conventional education; and that the faculty not be forced to join the Farm and City Products Corporation, a private enterprise which is said to be under the direction of Dr. Johns.

In a meeting between the board of control, the faculty, and Dr. Johns, the college head was accused of saying that he was planning to have the Farm and City Products Corporation take over the school if it was thrown into bankruptcy. Should this occur, it was pointed out, Dr. Johns, who owned the controlling interest in the corporation, would likewise own the school.

The entire student body was invited to sit jointly with the board. Their grievances were presented by fellow students. W. B. Crocker, the first student speaker, said "Even Dr. Johns does not know what courses are being offered at Virginia Seminary." He further accused Johns of permitting misleading advertisements to be run in the Journal and Guide and Opportunity magazine. He produced an Opportunity magazine and cited an advertisement which read to the effect that auto mechanics and agriculture are offered, adding that the school has neither equipment nor teachers for such courses. Student Roland Banner, the next speaker, asserted that since Dr. Johns came into office the school had gradually lost its academic rating and that last year it was dropped altogether from the list of accredited schools in the state.

Members of the board of control of Virginia Seminary said they either had to close the institution or dispense with the services of Dr. Vernon Johns. Informed of this, Johns turned in his resignation. Upon its receipt, the board voted to relieve him of his duties as president. But the board of trustees would have to officially accept it, so a new meeting for January 9, 1934 was set. The student strike was called off.

Johns tendered his resignation as president with the view of having it take effect as soon as the trustees could arrange for his successor. In view of the general discord in the institution over his view of education and his belief in the impossibility of prosecuting successfully a conventional type of college education with the resources at his command, Johns requested that the board of control assume all administrative functions until such time as the trustee board could act on his resignation. As the board gathered to read their decision, Dr. Johns asked to be excused to fill an engagement out of the city. He left without making any comment on the situation.

Students doused Rev. W. R. Ashburn, of Richmond, a trustee and supporter of Johns, with a tub of water poured from a second floor window as he entered a building. The students called him into the building saying he was wanted on the phone. He stopped at the building's threshold, but after being reassured by the students that it was safe to enter, he started to enter at which time he was doused.

Professor M. I. Claiborne and Dr. S. A. Jordan, the vice-president of the institution, took temporary charge of the seminary. December 23, 1933 (p. 4) the paper reported that Dr. C. P. Madison was making a great many visits to churches in the area, opening a mammoth campaign to raise funds for Virginia Seminary.

January 20, 1934 (p. 1&7) J&G reported that, acting on the recommendation of the board of control, the trustees of Virginia Seminary at a special meeting January 9 voted unanimously to accept Johns's previously offered resignation. Dr. C. P. Madison of Norfolk, president of Virginia State Baptist Convention, said that Dr. Johns had left only $5 dollars in the treasury and no food in the kitchen and that a board meeting was absolutely imperative. Another board member said that the school could run on a much lower budget than that outlined by Johns. Dr. C. C. Scott of Richmond, chairman of the board, supported Johns, claiming that the meeting was illegal and he would not preside. For this, while he was in Lynchburg the previous week, students damaged his car in reprisal. Dr. Johns was present at the meeting for only a short while and offered no specific comment in regard to the situation that forced his resignation.

On February 3, 1934 (p. 9) J&G reported that the seminary board met again. The purpose of this meeting was to determine the legality of the January 9 meeting. One hundred students showed up at the meeting having traveled on chartered buses to Richmond for the meeting at Fifth Street Baptist Church. They were concerned because they had heard rumors that Johns might be reinstated as president. They were barred from the meeting but some of the students later snuck into the balcony to listen to the wrangling.

At the meeting Rev. A. L. Galvin denounced his fellow trustees for accepting Vernon Johns's resignation in such a "hurried" manner at a meeting he termed "absolutely illegal." He was followed by Rev. G. E. Jones of Newport News who was also treasurer of Johns's Farm and City Products Corporation. He said the meeting was illegal because the chairman had ordered it postponed. Dr. J. C. Austin of Chicago bitterly criticized the trustees for allowing students to "force" them to dismiss the president. "Whoever heard of students putting a college president out of office?"

But Reverend M. C. Allen challenged Dr. Austin and made a strong plea for the students' case citing conditions at Virginia Seminary during Johns's term. He also said that there were cases of students deposing college presidents. His statements were applauded as sentiment in the meeting was overwhelmingly in favor of the students.

M. C. Allen was a constant thorn in the side of W. H. R. Powell and Vernon Johns. He got an A.B. from Virginia Seminary in 1916 and a B.D. from Virginia Seminary in 1918. He received a D.D. in 1938. He was a high school principle in Danville (1919- 1922) and Franklin (1925-1934), while at the same time being a pastor. He was superintendent of education at Virginia Seminary and College 1922-1925. He served as a student-pastor at the Shiloh Baptist Church at Danville and in Almegro, an all-black community of 4,000 persons. (J&G, November 14, 1950:24) He edited and published The Expected concerned with black educational needs and their obtainment.

That Rev. Allen was a very different man from Rev. Johns is revealed in a newspaper article from 1935 (J&G February 16, 1935:13). Rev. Allen spoke by special request filling the pulpit in the absence of the pastor, the Rev. C. P. Madison of the Second Calvary Tabernacle in Norfolk. Stating that "radicalism makes a man unnatural and superficial," Rev. Allen told the congregation that he seldom made speeches on the race problem. "Radicalism seeks to limit and control groups for selfish reasons. It can be traced to greed, selfishness and an abnormal desire for power. This leads to bitterness and revenge." He expressed the conviction that the so-called race problem is in reality a group problem of the underprivileged of all races. "It is a matter of class not race," the minister said. Some of the situations and conditions which lead to race clashes could be laughed out of existence. The reverend noted that the ability to laugh in the midst of trouble is the black's saving quality.

Vernon Johns presented a report covering the school's operation since the beginning of the school year in September. Ever defiant, he commented: "They put me out of Seminary as a student and called me back as a teacher, they put me out as a teacher and called me back as president; they put me out as president and when I come back this time it will be as proprietor." This statement caused quite a furor. B. L. Jordan of the Southern Aid Life Insurance Company, one of the college's largest creditors, took exception to Johns's comments and intimated that Johns was largely responsible for the bankruptcy rumors. Johns later said that he was only joking about proprietorship. On February 17, 1934 an editorial in the J&G denounced rumors that Virginia Seminary trustees considered going into bankruptcy.

Vernon Johns was blamed for the continuing financial problems of Virginia Seminary. Henry W. Powell once asked him if he was upset over these charges. Vernon indicated that he did not care a bit about the charges. Powell said further: "Let me give you some example of his feelings about this kind of opposition. Well the interesting thing is that my father had been president. My father discovered shortly after he became president that the finances were in a precarious, perilous state, that he attempted to warn the constituency that great collapse was imminent. But his warnings simply fell on deaf ears. They simply did not want to listen; they didn't want to hear bad news. So he went to the trouble of having a statement made up showing the indebtedness and the income and warning them that collapse was imminent. But he could not make an impression on them. So he quit. He resigned. He said he resigned to reserve himself to rebuild after the collapse. Then Vernon Johns took over. . . . they would have loved to have hung it on him, but my father made it very clear that I told you this was going to happen. Now don't blame him. He didn't know what I knew and what you knew. . . . I gave each one of you a print out that spelled out the financial conditions of the school. When I told that to Rev. Johns he said ‘Oh, man, I don't care about those people and their attacks on me.' He didn't give a hoot."

The Largess and Magnanimity of Vernon Johns

The largess and magnanimity of Johns's spirit is seen in his "A Tribute to Mr. Washington Scott" (publication and date unknown; given to Henry Powell by Mrs. Virginia Hughes). He starts the tribute by noting that he is not going "to disguise the fact that a breach had developed between him and the writer." In spite of this, "I discovered in him, no manifestation of personal bitterness, no indication of vicious feeling. On the day before his death we talked on Main Street for a long time and his manner was as pleasant as at any time during our acquaintance."

Johns described himself as a man "capable of discerning merit in persons who may not altogether agree with him." In fact, Johns developed a philosophy of how to handle those with whom we disagree. "Much is lost to the human cause by our refusal to see and acknowledge what is valuable in persons with whom we may not be completely in accord. It is highly necessary that the Negro show ability to keep in mind the preponderance of good in persons with whom he has occasion to disagree on some particular matter. To the contrary, if a person has shown himself upright in a thousand instances and then fails to satisfy us at some one point, we are inclined to put him down as altogether unworthy." In the particular case of Mr. Scott, Johns wrote that "Mr. Scott was really a great man whose memory Lynchburg Negroes need to preserve and cherish. We have a multiplicity of small men and a dearth of large men. The small men need to keep their eyes on the few large ones who appear here and there in the Negro Race with a view to increasing the general statue."

He highly praised Washington Scott for rising to financial stability from poor origins. And yet numerous Negroes of Lynchburg could testify "to the generous and hazardous use which he made of his possessions in the interest of his fellows." In addition, Mr. Scott was a man of culture with a wide range of interest.

Johns, however, had to assert that he was in the right and Scott in the wrong. He wrote: "I feel certain that any of his coolness towards the Administration in his latter days was induced by the growing nervousness and physical breakdown to which he finally succumbed; and to the fact that in this weakened condition a number of half educated young men congregated constantly about him and told him lies faster than he could digest them."

There was some thought that Vernon Johns became the pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church, the church of Pap Graham. The church is on Bainbridge Street near 17th street, southwest of Philadelphia's City Hall. But calling the church, they had no knowledge of Vernon Johns being a minister there. The leading minister of Philadelphia of the time was Pap Graham. Reverend W. F. Graham was formerly of Norfolk having pastored the Fifth Street Baptist Church there. William Powell, Jr. (interview) remembers one time Vernon Johns made a comment that Pap Graham had left the people of Holy Trinity so low that they would have to use a ladder to step up to hell.

No one knew how Vernon Johns felt about being fired from Virginia Seminary. He told many that he just did not care about what happened. But in the West Virginia Digest (December 16, 1939:4) there is a column that reveals just how upset he was about his being fired. As president of Virginia Seminary he was what he called a "Big Negro." He was an important man. That he did hunger for recognition is revealed in this article.

"We need a revised edition of Big Negroes. And this is not a sour-grapes outcry; for being a big Negro is a hard turbulent job and I need rest and peace. Of course I have felt the pull in that direction just as a poet dies young in every person. Once or twice it even seemed that the great prize was in sight."

But life never ran smoothly for the out-spoken Johns. His lack of defense against the students and faculty who criticized him at Virginia Seminary may have been foremost his shock at looking into the abyss. He had climbed the ladder to become a big Negro:

"But always something happened: the ladder turned over, a rung broke, or I fell off before the required eminence was reached. I got up from a number of these jolts but the last fall was so sudden and hard that it ended all hope of being even middle-sized. The aspirant had climbed up to a college presidency. The college ‘wasn't so hot' but it required as many letters to spell ‘president' there as it did at Harvard."

He says of the students at Virginia Seminary:

"Our student body was a mixed multitude but the mixture did not contain any who could pay their bills. The president, not to be beaten by collegiate poverty, conceived the idea of introducing useful work into the ranks of the learned. The innovation sent the whole college community on a rampage. The students got all the pasteboard in town to call he president names on. Those whose bills were half paid wore one placard. Those whose bills were totally unpaid wore two; while those who in addition to school expenses owed money to the president personally had a placard over every pore."

"All this happened in the midst of the hardest winter in ninety-seven years. By skillful adaptation, such as transferring part of our dog rations to the family larder, we managed to get through to Blackberry Time, but no energy is left for trying the ladder again. All we can do about Big Negroes in the future is to advise and berate them."

Johns sees himself as a "big Negro" who was brought low by the pettiness of his fellow blacks who, being a pauper race, are resentful of anyone who makes it big. In defense of the "big Negro," he writes:

"If it were not for the big folks, the rest of us could hardly live. Everywhere the man of large energy and insight makes the way for smaller men. . . . It is a mistake to attempt the decimation of all persons in the group who nose ahead of us in the race of life. . . . A race of paupers are unwise to view with displeasure the rising of its members from the uniform ranks of mendicancy or the dead levels of the dumb. I know an instance where a number of Negroes in the same jail chipped in to pay the fine of one inmate and send him out into the light. That is the attitude demanded."

Johns writes that the problem with the big Negroes is that they get ahead individually but hardly ever try to help the group communally. "I would like to see a news item stating that those with resources in mind and money were fraternizing to give the rank and file a better chance. But when the colored brother gets several jumps ahead it is a safe bet that he will be absent wherever something is attempted for the general well-being that involves risk. He has not yet accepted any measure of trusteeship. In such confraternity as he has with the small fry his motto is: ‘I will do as much as the others.'"

He blames this lack of cooperation with the race on the big Negroes who should create "their own models in preference to being the cheap imitations of others (whites) who hold them in contempt. Then some energy will be left to go into solid foundation and sound building." He blames the black middle class leadership for being "the white man's ape."

Johns adds: ". . . the Big Negro should do a little more than congratulate himself upon escape from the ranks and expect the little fellows to applaud his bigness. Honor is due not to those who COULD help us, but to those who DO help us."

Frankly, the blacks did not understand Vernon Johns. They did not understand what he was trying to do. Instead of seeing him as a great leader of protest and resistance against the apartheid system, they saw him merely as crude and rude, arrogant and stubborn. It would probably have been of some help if Johns had from the start of his tenure written down his approach to improving the collective position of blacks. But he did not. This opened the way to great misinterpretation of the man, his behavior, and his motives.

1934: Powell Back at Virginia Seminary

Paving the way for the election of a president to administer the affairs of Virginia Seminary following the resignation of Vernon Johns (J&G May 12, 1934:9), members of the school's trustee board, of which Dr. C. C. Scott of Richmond was chairman, met in Richmond's Fifth Street Baptist Church. The two main candidates were Rev. Allen and Rev. Powell. It looked at the time like M. C. Allen would be the next president of Virginia Seminary.

At a meeting of the Baptist State Convention (J&G May 19, 1934:9) at which the committee of fifteen met, there were impassioned pleas by B. L. Jordan for a "young David" as president of Virginia Seminary. Mr. Jordan pleaded for the necessity of a man who had never held the position and who had no old conflict with the constituency of the state convention. At the close of Mr. Jordan's speech, the board decided to postpone the election of a president of the college until June 20 at Metropolitan Baptist Church, Washington, D. C.

The consensus of opinion was, however, that the next president of Virginia Seminary would be a man from outside the state, one who was not so directly connected with the State Convention. The names of several outstanding educators were mentioned in this connection, including that of Dr. Howard Thurman of Howard University.

The headline (J&G June 30, 1934:1&16) ran "A fight looms as Powell is elected president of Virginia Seminary in a close vote." Allen was nosed out by a small margin on a 19-16 tally. The Allen forces claimed the election was illegal on the basis of three counts against the Rev. C. C. Scott, Richmond, Virginia, chairman of the board, who presided. They charged that the election was illegal because the chairman had in his pocket two votes which were sent by wire and which were not counted in that tally and because the chairman voted in the election when no tie existed between the contestants, and because Rev. Allen was not permitted to vote though he was a bonafide member of the board of trustees. The Allen men claimed their candidate would have won the election if it had been properly conducted.

Rev. E. T. Brown (J&G July 7, 1934:1&16), Roanoke trustee, spoke in favor of Rev. Powell and discounted the rumors that Powell had not yet accepted the presidency and scored Dr. C. E. Jones, chairman, executive board, Virginia Baptist State Convention for calling a meeting of "trustees and interested ministers" at the Hampton Institute Ministers' Conference last week to discuss matters relative to Virginia Seminary.

The headline (J&G July 14, 1934:11) ran "Allen forces accuse the Powell forces of deception." Rev. J. B. Williams, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Suffolk, Virginia, said that "The deception played by certain men concerning Dr. Powell is all but wicked. Just think of it, they have insisted in committees that if Dr. Powell were elected, he would resign his church and come to the Seminary, and just before the vote was taken on the day of election the question was asked point blank if Dr. Powell would move to the ‘hill,' and definite assurance was given by Dr. Powell's forces' leaders that he would."

Powell (J&G October 6, 1934:11) had been abroad in the Holy Land which accounted for the delay in his acceptance of the presidency. He was quite disturbed about the nature of the debate when he heard the full details. He commented: "Now, from information gleaned from newspaper releases, there were objections raised to me based upon several things. It is alleged: a) my election in Washington was illegal; b) that I was an individual of great indecision; c) that if called, I would not come; d) that my actions in the other "call" with respect to coming were at least shadowy; and e) that I was too high-toned for the work to be done. Now, all of these are very grave charges, and reflect seriously upon the fitness of the candidate for the office."

Powell had a series of questions for the trustee board about compensation and traveling expenses and the use of an automobile. He said that Vernon Johns had informed him that he had not moved his household effects from the president's home. "In this connection, he assures me that such failure is in no sense stubbornness on his part, or failure of understanding. But that such was his financial condition upon leaving the institution last spring, such the school's indebtedness to him, and such his present circumstances, that it has been wholly impossible for him to move. I would like the board to determine what can be done, if anything."

The whole affair left Powell somewhat bitter. He was, however, a very kind-hearted, gentleman who did not allow the controversy over his selection as president to poison his second term at Virginia Seminary.

 

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