PART V. THE GREAT DEPRESSION AND THE RISE OF MODERN PROTEST MOVEMENT
CHAPTER 14. VERNON JOHNS, PRESIDENT OF VIRGINIA SEMINARY , 1929-1933
Vernon Johns as he appeared in the newspaper May 31 1930
Under Rev. R. C. Woods life was a little better at Virginia Seminary with the school even having a good football team in the Dragons. "Many persons will yet have this institution fresh upon their minds because of their keen interest in the close race which Seminary's powerful football combination gave Hampton Institute's fine team during the last season, losing a chance for the championship only on the last day of the season. Last term's enrollment of Virginia Seminary was 480. The departments of instruction are college, normal, theological, and academic. It has a very strong faculty of twenty-eight, including graduates of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and similar well known institutions." (J&G, June 26, 1926:7) There was an advertisement for Virginia Seminary that mentioned that the location was "a veritable health retreat." (J&G August 28, 1928:2 of educational supplement)
Rev. W. H. R. Powell had served as president of Virginia Seminary since August 1926. He was brought in because the school found itself seriously embarrassed for funds and deeply in debt. Taking active charge, he worked without cost to the institution. (And for a total of fifteen years of service he never took a fee.) At the same time he pastored his church in Philadelphia. Virginia Seminary closed its academic year with signal success June 3-6. The principal addresses were delivered by Rev. Ravenell, R. H. Bowling, and Dr. T. J. King. Among the graduates were four from theology, nine from college, five from normal professional, and fifty-two from academy. (J&G June 23, 1928:9)
"Many persons know Virginia Seminary and College best by the feats of its athletic teams. And the Lynchburg college has been the producer of consistently sensational teams in football and basketball especially. (J&G July 28, 1928:12 educational supplement) Intercollegiate sports are popular at the institution. Besides its very fine football teams, Virginia Seminary has a wonderful basketball team that regularly finishes up among the leaders."
W. H. R. Powell purchased a farm for the institution. It was of fifty-two acres and was in Rustburg, Virginia, about eleven miles south of Lynchburg. Powell had put aside the money the seminary had promised to him as salary and then used this money to buy the farm for the school. As a precaution against any possible accidental death, he put the farm in his wife's name. This gave his enemies a great deal of ammunition to attack him. They questioned under what authority he had purchased the farm, why it was in his wife's name, and even accused him of going back to the Booker T. Washington philosophy of vocational education. Powell never lived at the farm and he finally deeded the farm over to the school. But his own figures clearly showed that the school was the owner and the beneficiary of Powell's philanthropy. The farm was a valuable asset to the school. It provided the entire table board for the entire student body of more than 100, the faculty and other members of the school staff. Already, Dr. Powell says, the farm has more than paid for itself. (J&G November 4, 1939:4)
He said that the farm was a Godsend to the school during the depression and World War II when times were so hard economically. He often said: "What would the school have done without the farm?" as it provided so much of the needed foodstuffs for the seminary which was often having problems with too little to eat. The school farm was a great help in providing extra work for worthy and needy students and table board at the school thus reducing the cost of the boarding department. The meat butchered at the farm last school year was valued at more than the cost of the farm operation for other purposes. (J&G Jul. 20, 1946:3)
The mother of Virginia Hughes (interview November 5, 1997) was Mrs. Rosa Woodard, Dean of Women at Virginia Seminary. Virginia said that the problem at Virginia Seminary was that everyone wanted to be president, especially M. C. Allen. She said that "mama never did get paid." Mama used to string beans brought from the farm. Sometimes Mrs. W. H. R. Powell would come down and help her.
Student life at Virginia Seminary and College is well rounded. Aside from the regular work of the class room, debating is engaged in under the supervision of Prof. Sterling Brown of the English Department, who is a very well known writer. Dramatic work, also under the direction of Prof. Brown, is undertaken by the Theater Guild.
Regarded as the folk poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Sterling Brown (1901-1989) was born in Washington, D.C. He earned an M.A. in English at Harvard in 1924. After teaching positions at Virginia Seminary and College, Lincoln University (Missouri), and Fisk University, Brown joined the faculty of Howard University in 1929, remaining there until retiring in 1969. His first book of poetry was published in 1932 and entitled Southern Road. During much of the 1930s, Brown served as literary editor of Opportunity. Chauncey Spencer (interview) said "Sterling Brown wrote a poem to my mother Anne Spencer in her Garden. It's on the wall there."
Under Dr. C. S. Morris, the Virginia Baptist State Convention held its annual session at the Fifth Street Baptist Church, Richmond, Virginia. Virginia Seminary had seen better days. During the fifteen months of Dr. Powell's administration nearly a hundred thousand dollars has been raised and more than forty thousand of that amount has been applied to the back debts of the school. (J&G April 14, 1928:7)
The Journal and Guide (December 15, 1928:8) reported that the institution asked for $5,000 dollars to pay on a pressing note. Dr. W. H. R. Powell appealed to pastors, churches, groups, and individuals with any interest in the seminary for a Christmas donation to be applied to the Durham loan. Dr. Powell called attention to the fact that by January 1, 1928, a little over $5,000 dollars must be applied to this debt, or the institution would be gravely embarrassed. The paper noted "All are asked to help in this situation and are urged to ask others to do the same."
Despite the great efforts of Rev. Powell, in 1929 fiscal matters at Virginia Seminary were terrible. On February 9, 1929, the Journal and Guide reported that the board of Virginia Seminary rejected the resignation of the President, William H. R. Powell. The reverend raised $130,000 dollars for the school. The board asked one hundred churches and pastors to contribute one hundred dollars within the next thirty day. But they still needed a campaign for $500,000 dollars more. The drive was set for the period from March through April.
On April 6, 1929 (J&G) an announcement went out from Dr. A. A. Galvin of Newport News, the chairman of the board, for a Battle Cry for funds. The amount they wanted was $25,000 dollars. He asked for the money to be laid out at Queen Street Baptist Church in Hampton, Virginia where the Virginia Baptist State Convention was being held.
During these years there were lots of headlines about Oscar DePriest. One headline declared "De Priest is Named for Congress." Oscar DePriest is said to succeed the deceased Congressman Martin B. Madden as the Republican representative for the First Illinois District. DePriest, former alderman and the first of his race to sit as a member of Chicago's aldermanic body, former county commissioner, wealthy real estate operator and stormy petrel of Chicago politics, was named by the Republican ward committeemen whose wards lie within the bounds of the First Congressional District, Chicago's South Side. He is 60 years old. (J&G May 5, 1928:1) (It was also noted that Reverend J. Raymond Henderson, D.D. of Charleston, West Virginia, is in Petersburg conducting a revival at the Gilfield Baptist Church.)
Vernon Johns: President of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College
On April 27, 1929 the J&G reported a debate engaged in by Johns. The headline was "Religion in God's Name Damnable, Pastor Declares." In New York Vernon Johns debated Rev. William H. Moses at Mount Olivet Baptist Church. The debate topic was "Is religion, as conceived by the colored worshiper, and practiced generally in his church, elevating to the Negro people?"
Johns took the negative side. The reporter described Johns's attacks as a "fiery tirade." Johns said that ". . . religion was calculated to promote peace and harmony; but rather it is neglecting justice, mercy, and truth -- descending almost to the gates of hell. Jesus was murdered by a mob goaded on by religious zealots."
He said further that "science was delayed three hundred years because religious fanatics interfered with the discoverer of the circulation of blood. There is no wanton fact for the colored man's cocksureness that he is God's pet and perfect representative . . . Colored religions have split up congregations from village churches to the National Baptist Convention. Some of their churches originated out of mere jealousy. Are such churches elevating to the race?" He pleaded for a religion that would make people trustworthy, merciful, and powerful.
On June 22, 1929 J&G reported that Virginia Union, Virginia Seminary and Hartshorn College, Richmond, might merge. If so the plant at Lynchburg would be closed and the student body would go to Richmond. But on June 29 the paper reported that the Virginia Seminary Board rejected the proposed merger. Instead Reverend Vernon Johns would become the new president and the school would open September 19.
July 6, 1929 the J&G announced that Vernon Johns and his assistant Dr. W. H. Moses were making arrangements to move to the school at an early date to take up their new duties. But the school was still in terrible condition. On July 13 the paper noted that a local Richmond businessman with a huge influence on Virginia Seminary, B. L. Jordan, reported that the school needed $75,000 dollars immediately or disaster would befall Virginia Seminary. Jordan was the secretary-manager of the Southern Aid Society of Virginia, an insurance society that paid out sick, accident, and death benefits. On July 27 (p. 11) a campaign to save the school was announced. It consisted of a Sixty Day Drive with the campaign slogan "In 60 days it must be saved -- Virginia Seminary shall not be moved."
They Lynchburg telephone directory for 1929 listed both Vernon and Altona Johns. It mentioned that Johns was president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College and that Altona was an instructor at Virginia Seminary.
Calls Man Fool and a Liar Who Lives Too High; Dr. Johns Declares People Who Seek to Live after Richer Classes will be Paupers
Such was the headline of a story on Vernon Johns in the J&G (September 14, 1929, p.2). In 1929 the meeting of the National Baptist Convention was held in Norfolk. Johns spoke at the meeting. His topic was "The History of the Jew: A Lesson for the Negro."
"If a race or an individual does not have a fair chance, it must win with an unfair chance or lose." He said "the best excuse for being in a poor condition is a poor substitute for not being in a good situation, and warned the race that no excuse for its failure to achieve will be a good substitute for the things it shall fail to possess."
He added that the race should rid itself of some of its easy and unjustified optimism. He depicted the economic crisis facing blacks because of the loss of traditional Negro jobs in the new machine age. The jobs that were opening were primarily for whites, and the jobs the machines were closing were largely done by blacks. Unless the race stirred itself to action it would be the victim of a new slavery, not physical, but economic. Johns declared that easy optimism facing this situation is foolish. "We need to examine our optimism and see what right we have to feel that we are headed toward a rosy future whether we exert ourselves or not."
He said there are no excuses for failure to achieve. "We cannot be excused for not achieving because we have not sufficient tools with which to work." He suggested blacks pay attention to the example of the Jewish people. The Jewish people won in spite of handicaps. Dr. Johns reminded the audience that the Jew was never optimistic in the face of persecution, which was shown when he wailed, "How can we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?"
He declared that if black leaders shape their living in line with that of their overlords while the masses are oppressed and denied, "we will always be a pauper race. . . . The man of the servile class who lives the life of a man of the master class is both a liar and a fool. For if the leaders try to live like the leaders of the master class, the entire race will remain in pauperdom." Johns also got in a dig against religion saying that "Much of our religion is nothing but a superstition, a noisy, jazzy substitute for character." He said that when the Jews were oppressed in Babylon, and the Babylonian kings told the Jewish leaders to renounce their people and partake of the king's meat and wine, they refused to desert their oppressed masses. Rather they continued their association with their masses.
Speaking of conditions at the seminary, he said the school will be perpetuated if it has the constituency that is willing to get under a cross, that is willing to forego some of its luxuries and that will refuse to "defile itself with the King's meat." Now this does not sound like a message that would appeal to college professors, let alone students. With this stress on austerity, Johns would of course be headed for trouble. Johns might have noted that in February alone there was a strike of over one hundred students at Kittrell College in Kittrell, North Carolina. (J&G February 11, 1928:1) President G. A. Edwards of Kittrell College resigned in a letter dated October 22, 1928. (J&G November 3, 1928:1)
School Opening 1929
There was some doubt as to whether or not Virginia Seminary would open in the fall of 1929. The Journal and Guide (August 24, 1929 p. 9) said that efforts were being made to prepare the school as if it would open in the fall, but that the future of the school was unsure. Virginia Seminary still had its problems. "This school is the one institution that keeps Lynchburg in colored papers." The previous year's enrollment was 275 students.
In this situation, Johns would probably not be the man for the job as he would be one to expand rather than cut costs. Johns was never a good businessman, so why would one think he would make a good administrator? He certainly was no accountant, earning fame as one who cuts faculty and other expenses. Instead, Johns expanded the college (October 12, p. 14, J&G). One of the new faculty he recruited was Professor William Henry Jones, former head of the Department of Sociology of Howard University. Jones had been actively researching Negro social life in the south. His second book The Housing of Negroes in Washington, D.C. had just been published by Howard University Press. At Virginia Seminary Jones would head the Department of Social Science and continue his research.
September 28, 1929 (p. 10) J&G reported that Virginia Seminary opened as scheduled. Professors Crowder, Peters, Jordan, and Moses, and Dr. Terrell were on hand to teach the students.
The National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated, voted to do its education work at Virginia Seminary at its recent session in Norfolk and the leaders made considerable contributions to Virginia Seminary. One $50.00 dollar contribution came from "Pap" Graham (Rev. W. F. Graham of Trinity Baptist Church in Philadelphia) with a fine letter of encouragement to Vernon Johns.
As president of Virginia Seminary, Johns was a very active man often soliciting funds for the college. He was in Buffalo and New York City for a week and addressed the Ministers Conference of Pittsburgh on September 30. Along with Johns was his assistant, Dr. Moses, and the Seminary Quartet. Johns and Moses preached all day for Dr. Hill at the Second Baptist Church in Richmond. The president of Northern University, Rev. Timothy Boddie, visited the Virginia Seminary campus. On October 5 the paper reported that Johns and Moses would speak at a Williamsburg Drive for Virginia Seminary. Accompanied by the Seminary Quartet, Johns would also speak at a fund drive in Norfolk.
On October 29, 1929 the bottom fell out of the stock market. The times would bring many new challenges to Virginia Seminary.
In 1929 Mrs. Altona Johns was listed in the telephone directory as an instructor at Virginia Seminary. The Johns family lived in 1930 at 2233 Garfield Avenue, where the present dorms of Virginia Seminary are located.
Robert Duke (interview November 3, 1997) was a young man who lived in the house next door to Humbles Hall (constructed 1920). He knew Vernon Johns as a grumpy man. The kids would play on the grounds of Virginia Seminary. He said that Dunbar High School team practiced there. He said that he was nine or ten years old. The kids would gather on the corner of Garfield and De Witt. They would play outside as much as they could, but when the whistle of the cotton ill blew at 5:30 they all knew it was time to head home for dinner or else. He said the kids would just drop everything once the whistle blew, and headed for home.
Johns had seen the boys play on the athletic field and kept an eye on them. He would lecture to us at times. Often Robert could not understand the words President Johns used. He said "I am going to use a word that is a wrong word but it shows you how I could not understand the words of Vernon Johns. Dr. Johns said to us one day Young men. You've got the jurisdication of gangsters." He said that he had heard many speakers, including Haywood Robertson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Mordecai Johnson, and Howard Thurman. Vernon Johns was better than all of them.
Robert was in graduate school for social work at Atlanta University when Johns spoke at the university. Dr. Clements introduced Johns by saying "Should I introduce him as a farmer minister or a minister farmer?" It was one of the best baccalaureate sermons I ever heard.
"Assurances have been given the board of trustees of Virginia Seminary that if the institution raises and applies $20,000 dollars on its debts in a short time $57,000 dollars of these debts would be canceled." (J&G January 25, 1930:12) This statement was made to the board at its meeting on January 17, by L. C. Jackson, business manager of the seminary. He said such an arrangement had been effected with prominent white businessmen.
A thorough examination of the affairs of the school by the board revealed that conditions were in far better shape than had been supposed. President Johns had succeeded in arranging a campaign for Washington, D.C. in which President Mordecai Johnson of Howard University agreed to make the principal address. The churches of the District of Columbia would participate in this affair which was planned for February 1, 1930.
President A. L. James of the Baptist State Convention, which underwrote Virginia Seminary, continued his efforts to enlist the aid of every convention, church and church member to help raise the $20,000 dollars needed if the institution was to receive the benefit of the $57,000 dollar debt cancellation. President James stated that one thousand churches could meet this emergency by raising and reporting for the school $2.00 a week for ten weeks. The school was found to be much in advance of what it was last year at this time. The board, however, decided to meet at least once each month and share the responsibility in running and managing the institution.
"A plan that is characterized as neither burdensome nor impracticable has been worked out for relieving the financial situation at Virginia Seminary, it was announced by the Rev. A. L. James in the Roanoke Church News. He and President Johns, along with a committee, adopted a plan to solicit the cooperation and permission of the pastors and their churches throughout the state of Virginia and the country in having an offering taken at the close of each Sunday service for the Seminary. This money, regardless of the amount, is to be sent to the officials of the school at Lynchburg." (J&G March 15, 1930:8)
In a letter to President John W. Davis of West Virginia State College dated March 26, 1930 (Archives), Vernon Johns wrote that "I missed the pleasure of seeing you on my recent visit to West Virginia, and the profit of receiving from you the kind of check which I am certain you would have given, had you been present to hear my argument for the Seminary. Please favor us with such a check as early as convenient . . ."
In a letter dated June 7, 1930 (West Virginia State College Archives) Vernon Johns asked the President of West Virginia Collegiate Institute, John W. Davis, to give him some advise on a case of student insubordination during the graduation ceremonies at Seminary. "All seniors were asked by the professor in charge of the line of march to assemble for practice at four p.m. promptly on Saturday. Two students failed to report at the time stated. The march was rehearsed eight times; repeated corrections were made in the case of several persons and the practice did not cease until the march had been gone through perfectly. No penalty was imposed upon the two seniors mentioned for their failure to report at practice, but when the class assembled on Sunday afternoon to march in for the Baccalaureate service, the professor in charge of the line of march ruled that the seniors who had not reported for practice would refrain from entering the line of march in order to preserve its correct appearance, and would instead walk in and sit with the graduating class when they assembled in their places in the chapel. This ruling was given just before the march started, and was repeated for emphasis in the presence of the faculty and the entire graduating classes. Immediately the march commenced, and immediately the two seniors who had failed to report for practice and who had been instructed to remain out of the line arose, entered the line and marched in as though no instruction had been give to the contrary.
The following penalty was imposed by the administration: When the time came for the presentation of diplomas to graduates, the names of the two seniors who had entered the line of march in defiance of constituted authority were omitted when the class was called to the rostrum, and the statement was made to the audience that the names had been omitted because of the insubordination of the two persons involved. The two graduates were afterwards presented their diplomas privately.
We are asking for your opinion concerning this whole affair under the following questions:
1. Did such insubordination require a penalty?
2. Was the penalty too severe?
3. Was the penalty consistent with the type of offense?
Thanking you for this favor, I am, yours very cordially, Vernon Johns, President."
President Davis wrote back on June 10, 1930 (West Virginia State College Archives) stating that "Allow me to thank you for your letter of June seventh. All cases of insubordination arising in this institution call for immediate suspension. If the breach referred to in your letter involves insubordination, you can understand from my first statement how it would be treated in this institution. Sincerely yours, John, W. Davis, President.
"President Johns, is striving very manfully as head of Virginia Seminary. He seems to be doing all that any one man could reasonably be expected to do to keep that school moving on. But no one man can do any one big thing without help from his fellows. Dr. Johns needs a heartier and more unanimous cooperation on the part of the constituents of the institution." (J&G April 12, 1930:14)
Rev. J. Raymond Henderson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, West Virginia was scheduled to preach at First Calvary Baptist Church April 15. The Journal and Guide (April 12, 1930:14) wrote that "Rev. Henderson is no stranger in this city. He has appeared here on several occasions, but is always greeted by large crowds. He is regarded as one of the ablest ministers of his day, though yet a very young man. He is not only a brilliant scholar but a deeply spiritual preacher."
"The newly organized reading club known as the Jessie Faucett Reading Club made its first appearance in a public meeting in the First Baptist Church of Roanoke with Dr. Vernon Johns, president of Virginia Seminary, as speaker for the occasion. The Twilight Singers accompanied him. The speaker who is regarded wherever he is known as one of the most interesting and inspiring speakers of our times, maintained his reputation with such ease and beauty as to call forth heavy applause from his audience at several points during his address, and to please all who heard him. Several selections were rendered by the Twilight Singers and the evening proved one of pleasure and profit to all. A collection of $50 dollars was taken and this amount was supplemented by an individual donation of $5 dollars given by Dr. L. L. Downing, increasing the amount to $55 dollars." (J&G April 19, 1930:20)
For over forty years the Virginia Seminary has been one of the educational rallying points for a large number of colored Baptists in Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and West Virginia. There is nothing about this institution of which any of its friends need to be ashamed. The only thing is that the school has expanded beyond the point of being financed by the amount of money that used to be contributed to it. There is no hope for Seminary's continued success unless the contributions to her are made larger. (J&G May 17, 1930:5)
"The thirty-ninth commencement of Virginia Seminary will be held in College Chapel, June 1-4, 1930. Miss Betty Sinkford, of New York City, celebrated concert soloist, will sing a number of solos. The Twilight Singers of Virginia Seminary and the United Choirs Chorus will also render selections. The baccalaureate sermon will be preached by Rev. Vernon Johns. He has been speaker at numerous colleges and universities including Howard and Fisk, and speaks during this commencement season at fourteen high schools and colleges from Virginia to Georgia. Professor Sterling A. Brown, of Howard University, will be the college commencement speaker on Wednesday Evening, June 4." (J&G May 31, 1930:3)
The white citizens of Lynchburg began this week their first financial campaign in the interest of Virginia Seminary. The first installment from this campaign will be paid at the time of the joint Baptist Convention, June 17-20. Walker Pettyjohn, prominent business man and ex-mayor of the city of Lynchburg, and president of the Chamber of Commerce, made a personal pledge of $1,000 dollars.
The special jubilee session of the Virginia Baptist State Convention, the Women's Missionary Convention, the State Sunday School Convention is being held jointly on the campus of Virginia Seminary this week. (J&G June 21, 1930:3) The launching of a campaign for $200,000 to wipe out the entire indebtedness of Virginia Seminary was a high mark of the Virginia Baptist State Convention meeting in joint session. The conventions opened June 17 and closed June 20. (J&G June 28, 1930:2)
Plans for the drive were worked out and presented to the convention by President Johns. The idea of wiping out the entire indebtedness was so enthusiastically received that immediately $10,550 dollars in negotiable notes on the Peoples National Bank were signed by persons whose signatures are acceptable to the bank. For the first time in the history of the school, white friends of Lynchburg have organized to assist in clearing the school of debt. The campaign among the white people is headed by John Victor, president of the Peoples National Bank, Walker Pettyjohn, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Attorney Fred Harper, former mayor of Lynchburg.
The Virginia Baptist State Convention called for a special session of the convention for Labor Day, at which time the administration, both of the school and convention, hoped to end the $200,000 dollar campaign successfully. In spite of depressing financial conditions in the country, President Johns reported that gifts in cash of over $27,000 dollars have been made to the school during the past year. The slogan "All Pull and Pull Together" became the watchword of delegates and friends as they returned to their fields.
The Journal and Guide offered to print each week in August the names of its readers who signed and send to the office of the newspaper an accompanying pledge toward the settlement of Virginia Seminary's debt. The pledge ran: "I pledge to Virginia Seminary and College the sum of $35.00 to be paid prior to September 1, 1930, with which to cancel $100.00 of its indebtedness." Creditors had agreed to accept $27,300 in payment for $78,000 of debt settlement by September 1, Dr. Vernon Johns stated in announcing the offer of the Journal and Guide. The money was to be paid through the Peoples National Bank of Lynchburg, Virginia. Accepting an invitation to speak at the Labor Day rally to beheld at the Seminary, C. C. Spaulding of Durham wrote to Dr. Johns "I feel sure that the efforts of the trustees of the school under our leadership, supported by the great Baptist hosts in Virginia and other friends of the institution to put over the $200,000 Debt Clearance Campaign will be abundantly successful. The rally will include a picnic, alumni meeting, ball game and other sports, monster mass meeting at 4 o'clock with Mr. Spaulding as chief speaker, and a high class musicale featuring the Sabbath Glee Club of Richmond at 8 o'clock.
In the journal of Lorenzo J. Greene who was an assistant professor of history and also sold books for Carter G. Woodson, the father of black history, there are a lot of comments on all the different people with whom he came into contact. The introduction by the editor says that Greene's ideal minister was Vernon Johns (Greene 1996:10). Greene was especially critical of those who "gave the people what they wanted" and appealed to their emotions. On Saturday, October 11, 1930 Greene telegraphed Dr. Vernon Johns of Lynchburg Theological Seminary. I asked him to arrange a meeting, that I would arrive Wednesday without fail. (Greene 1996: 190)
Greene was anticlerical. He (1996:37-38) commented that the annual Ministers' Conference in Hampton, Virginia "is really a nuisance. Some few take it seriously. Most, however, regard it as a pleasure or sight-seeing trip. When Dr. James H. Dillard was speaking this morning, fully one-half the ministers were absent. Many were playing croquet, others were visiting or sightseeing in Norfolk or Portsmouth, while a goodly number of others sat on the lawn either flirting with the summer school teachers or arguing trivial biblical point." Greene spoke at the conference and his words complaining about the clerical social prohibitions caused quite a reaction. Led by Dr. A. G. Galvin of Newport News and pastor of the First Baptist Church, a fiery dispenser of the gospel of the Old School, many of the ministers said they were not going to let down their guards. But some of the younger ministers spoke out against some of the old social prohibitions. Among this group was Dr. Richard H. Bowling pastor of First Baptist Church of Norfolk, and Dr. Murray of Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, Washington, D. C.
Greene's views on the black church and its leaders received public attention in November 1930 when he went to Lynchburg to speak at Virginia Seminary, where Johns was president. While there, he delivered his speech on "unemployment among Negroes, its causes and its remedies" to an audience at the Court Street Baptist Church. He called for a moratorium on building new churches and using the money for productive activities such as erecting factories and stores. (Reported in Norfolk J&G, November 22, 1930:4).
The Norfolk Journal and Guide (Nov 15 and Nov 22, 1930), carried articles from the Associated Negro Press reporting on two speeches Greene made at Virginia Seminary. His first presentation "refuted many accepted but erroneous theories concerning the Negro. He dispelled the notion that the Negro had his beginnings in slavery by narrating the rich heritage of the Negro in Africa before the destruction of the great Negro kingdoms there following the beginning of the slave trade." His second presentation was more controversial. He called for African Americans to stop building churches. He also said that the clergy were "primarily interested in their own self-aggrandizement." (p. 196 footnote 2)
The J&G on November 1, 1930 carried a picture of President Vernon Johns on page ten along with the story of a Thanksgiving Drive he was leading to raise funds for the school.
1931: Hints of Troubles to Come
In 1931 there were many articles on the Scottsboro Boys in the black papers. The Scottsboro Case was to black America what the Sacco-Vanzetti Case had been to liberal America in the twenties. (Long and Collier 1972:309) During the desolate spring of 1931 nine black youths were falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train traversing northern Alabama. Crowds of menacing whites, gathering outside the courthouses of Scottsboro and Decatur, made it unmistakably clear to judges and jurors that they wanted quick conviction of the nine black "Scottsboro boys".
The first trials were held in the Scottsboro Courthouse in April 1931. There were four separate trials. supposed rape victim Victoria Price relished the attention she received because of the trials' notoriety and she told the juries about the rapes with tremendous enthusiasm including many details. Supposed co-victim Ruby Bates was much less forthcoming. In one trial Norris and Weems were found guilty and sentenced to death. In the second trial the jury found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to death. The trial of Powell, Roberson, Wright, Williams and Montgomery was underway within fifteen minutes of the earlier verdict. They also were found guilty and sentenced to death. Leroy Wright's case was settled separate from the others. He was "only" given life imprisonment because of his age.
There were hints of trouble at Virginia Seminary. Because of what he termed "certain irregularities" connected with activities at Virginia Seminary of which he was a trustee, the Rev. E. C. Smith addressed a public letter to the Rev. C. C. Scott chairman of the board of trustees asking that public answer be given to several important questions. Rev. Scott in a statement to the Journal and Guide said "I have no desire to enter into a newspaper controversy with my good friend and secondly I am not concerned about what Rev. Smith thinks about my ability to execute the functions of my office as chairman of the trustee board of Virginia Theological Seminary and College. And thirdly if there was an error in judgment, which I am not willing to admit, it was not the first I have made and will not be the last. The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who does nothing." (J&G January 10, 1931:11)
The letter is very mysterious concerning the actual charges, but Vernon Johns must have come under some type of suspicion, for the letter mentions that the committee exonerated the president. The text of Reverend Smith's letter to Reverend Scott follows:
"Having talked with Rev. L. K. Jackson, business manager of the Virginia Seminary, Lynchburg, Virginia, he having informed me of a meeting held by a few trustees at our school December 11, 1930 at which meeting his resignation as manager was accepted, and because of certain irregularities connected with both the meeting and the school situation, as an interested trustee of the school, I am forced to make public these questions, which I shall welcome your public answer.
1. Was not a meeting of the Board of Trustees held at the school November 25, 1930, and at such meeting discrepancies to the amount of $2,200 were reported to the Board by the manager, Rev. L. K. Jackson?
2. In the face of this situation did not the president tender his resignation and under passion attempted to tear up the manager's report for which you made him apologize to the Board?
3. Did not the Board authorize an investigating committee and you appointed the following: Revs. C. A. Lindsay, L. W. Wales, C. E. Jones, M. C. Allen, C. C. Harvey, A. R. Jaymes, and yourself?
4. Was it not the business of that committee to make investigations and report the same to the Trustee Board in a session to be called by you?
5. Did not this committee meet December 11 and instead of investigating resolved itself into a Trustee Board meeting and proceeded to accept the manager's resignation and exonerated the president?
6. Do you consider this a legal meeting?
8. Do you feel as a minister of the gospel that it is fair to take advantage of your fellow trustees whose interest in the work is as great as yours?
10. Do you think that you can answer these questions in a way that the public will have confidence in you as chairman of the board to continue to support the school in face of what the business manager reports as mismanagement and misuse of the public money sent there to support the school?
When you shall have answered these ten questions satisfactorily to the public and me, I shall ask you ten more. But I am confident that the privilege will not be mine to ask the others unless you face these facts as facts and come out with the truth." What became of these charges is not known.
Mrs. Vernon Johns was active with her music. She was guest pianist at the Court Street Baptist Church (J&G January 3, 1931:14). The Rev. P. W. Cook was the minister at Court Street Baptist Church. Special Easter music rendered by Virginia Seminary choir at Jackson Street M. E. Church. Miss Margurite Wood was director assisted by Mrs. Vernon Johns. (J&G April 4, 1931:8) "Hail, Mother Goose" was presented May 18, 1931. More than one hundred children took part in it. The money went for the Girl Reserve Conference at Kings Mountain, North Carolina in June and also for Virginia Seminary. Mrs. Vernon Johns directed the operetta. (J&G May 9, 1931:9)
On Saturday, January 10, 1931, in Philadelphia, salesman Greene met with Thomas Wallace Swann. His journal notes noted "On way home, Swann took me to see Dr. Adkins, uncle of Jessie Adkins (a former Howard University classmate of mine). Extolled Vernon Johns. Bought nothing." On January 14, 1931 Greene went to see Rev. Wesley F. "Pop" Graham, Baptist preacher. "Is reputed to be one of richest men in Philadelphia. Also philanthropist. Established first Negro industrial insurance company in the United States." (Greene 1996: 257-258&260)
February 4, 1931, Reverend Vernon Johns was the guest speaker at chapel services of Union Theological Seminary, New York City. His subject was "The Answer of Religion to the Riddle of Life." Union Seminary was one of the foremost theological schools in the country, having on its faculty such men as Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick and Dr. Moffat, who made the Moffat translation of the Bible. Dr. William Lyman, head of the department of philosophy, had written the introduction to Reverend Johns's book, Human Possibilities. (February 14, 1931:16)
According to the Journal and Guide (February 11, 1931:16), the sixteenth anniversary of Rev. C. P. Madison as pastor of Second Calvary Baptist Church would begin Sunday, April 12, and would continue through the 20th of the month. Dr. Vernon Johns would preach the sermon and launch the drive for five hundred dollars on Sunday morning. "As a speaker, he is classed among the best; as an educator he has few equals; his work as president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College stands out, in that he has been able to keep the doors of the school open in the face of the depression that has been on all over the country. He will bring with him the famous Seminary Twilight Quartet which will sing at both the morning and evening services. They will remain through the week and will be assisted by the Excelsior Quartet, one of the best in Norfolk, and the Female Quartet of the Second Calvary Baptist Church choir."
Among the many prominent visitors who spoke at an A. M. E. ministers conference were Rev. C. P. Madison, pastor of Second Calvary Baptist Church; J. W. Anderson, secretary of the Y. W. C. A.; Mrs. Lucinda Day; and Dr. Vernon Johns. "Dr. Johns's remarks so inspired the conference that they were reluctant to have him stop speaking." (J&G April 18, 1931:16) Attending were some of the most prominent ministers of the Tidewater area of Virginia.
The fundamental idea of Dr. Johns's entire discourse was patience. In connection with this virtue, he said: "When failure seems imminent, when we have expended all of our energy and apparently have done all that we can, we sometimes wonder just what the Almighty is driving at. A thousand times in my lifetime I have found myself defeated, worn, and right on the ragged edge. And at such times I have depended on God. Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is He weary? There is no searching of His understanding.'
"When in broken moments and on the ragged edge we must be supported by this knowledge of the power of God." The speaker's text was taken from the 40th chapter of Isaiah from the 28th through the 31st verses. "I had occasion to do some traveling last summer in the drought area and I noticed the parched condition of the farmers' crops and the dry water-beds. It made me think very deeply. When I think of the drought I like to remind myself that the oceans are still full of water. In times of hunger and famine I like to know that the prairie lands are filled with flowing grain, and when I am downcast I like to know that I can depend on the power of God."
"The real atheist is not the person who denies the existence of God but rather the person who denies the power of God. We as ministers are out-howling everybody else in these times of depression, but we should not be discouraged, but rather serve as shining examples for those whom we are fortunate enough to lead."
Dr. Johns related an incident that demonstrated clearly the virtue of patience. "There was at one time an infidel who started a country-wide campaign against faith in God. He appeared at a certain church and proceeded to demonstrate his disbelief in God by tearing all of the leaves out of the Bible. He then stated that he would give God just five minutes to show his displeasure. At the end of five minutes nothing happened and so he walked calmly out of the church. This incident had the effect of causing one man to lose all faith in God and on one occasion while in London he related the incident to Dr. Parker, the great evangelist, whereupon Dr. Parker replied, 'Did the gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of God in five minutes?'"
Rev. Johns cited examples to show that the world is actually improving spiritually and that times have changed especially in the standard of living. "The whole scheme of God is in moving us on to some infinite purpose. Some of us haven't enough faith. We are too impatient when it comes to accomplishing things. We expect to perform miracles in a day. The world would never have amounted to anything had it not been for someone who was very close to God, and who had infinite patience."
"There is only one thing without which one cannot be a Christian. You can be a model citizen in every way that the term implies and you can be a model church member but in the words of the text, 'You must take up your cross and follow Me.' You cannot lay down when the cross is laid upon you. We have been substituting luxury for this cross." He added, "Vision and delusions are not enough to achieve. We must contend with reality. God give us the grace to do it." At the conclusion of the discourse, the ministers gave Dr. Johns a vote of thanks and raised a contribution for Virginia Seminary.
Dr. Vernon Johns was to conclude his series of addresses on Friday night, April 17, 1931. The pastor and officers of Second Calvary Church have issued a special invitation to the public to hear Dr. John's farewell message. In his address Monday night at the church, Dr. Johns spoke on "The Strength in the Things that Remain." This was his second speech of the day, as he had previously addressed the Baptist Ministers Conference.
Dr. Johns spoke again on Tuesday night, his subject "Contemporary Negro Civilization." He said "I deplore the indifferent attitude of my people to serious thought. The thing that discourages me about my people is not their ignorance, their poverty, or the fact that they are unjustly treated, but rather that we are, as a race, indifferent."
"The attitude of indifference, the don't-care attitude, is the greatest curse that can befall any people. Very often Negroes have to be driven to do things, they are passing up too many things that go to make civilized persons of us. The first essential quality of a civilized people is that they must be capable of projecting large enterprises over long periods of time. The second great essential quality of a civilized people is that they must be capable of absolute cooperation on a large scale."
The annual meeting of the Virginia Baptist State Convention was held at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg June 9 to 12 (April 18, 1931:16). Dr. A. L. James was president of the state convention. Drs. Mordecai W. Johnson, Carter G. Woodson, J. H. Dillard and Mrs. Maggie L. Walker were among the principal speakers and Dr. Vernon Johns made his report on Virginia Seminary. A pageant showing fifty years of progress was one of the special features.
Under a picture of Johns was this caption: "Dr. Vernon Johns, prominent educator and minister, and president of Virginia Seminary and College, who has been in demand as a speaker at baccalaureate and commencement exercises." (J&G June 6, 1931:16) The text said that "it appears that all are desirous of encouraging the heart of the young man at the head of the educational forces, Dr. Vernon Johns, and the head of the state convention, Dr. A. L. James, for they . . . have been working hard to bring glory to the cause which has been long so dear to their hearts."
Another hint of trouble at Virginia Seminary came with an article in the Baltimore Afro-American that charged that the college dean of Virginia Seminary, Prof. Charles Satchell Morris, Jr., had been "fired" by President Vernon Johns. Both Morris and Johns emphatically denied the report. The allegation was also made that Vernon Johns used unprintable language to a woman and offered to fight her and he was a storm center generally. The paper also printed a picture of Mr. Morris's sister, stating that she was embroiled in the difficulty. (J&G August 8, 1931:4)
Morris denied that he had been dismissed as dean. In a telegraphic communication to the Journal and Guide Morris denied that there had been any rupture between him and President Vernon Johns. Mr. Morris said that his reported dismissal as dean of the college was without foundation and that Mrs. Morris was never suspended as a student or disciplined in any form. Mrs. Ruth Graham, his sister, was never connected with the college, he added. "It had been reported that she was an instructor and resigned during the rumored trouble which Mr. Morris now informs this paper never occurred." (J&G June 13, 1931:7)
His father, Dr. Charles Satchell Morris, Sr., 65, nationally known scholar, preacher, and orator died after an illness of several months. (J&G August 1, 1931:1) Morris Jr. filed two suits in the superior court in Baltimore, Maryland against the Afro-American Publishing Company. He was suing the publication for $100,000 dollars charging slander and criminal libel because of certain statements made concerning his connection with Virginia Seminary early in June. (August 8, 1931:4)
Morris said that his reputation and standing had suffered as a result of the article in the Baltimore Afro American. He also maintained that he suffered a loss in prestige in the teaching profession. Whatever happened, Professor Morris moved on to another job because the newspaper carried notice of Professor Morris of Bluefield Institute West Virginia paying a visit to Lynchburg where he spoke at Virginia Seminary chapel. (J&G May 7, 1932:9 and May 21, 1932:14)
The Journal and Guide (August 1, 1931:16) carried the report that the work of Virginia Seminary under Dr. Johns was strongly endorsed by the trustees, and a campaign inaugurated for a $25,000 dollar drive to begin at once and to make the first report Labor Day, September 7, at the Seminary.
Times were still hard at Virginia Seminary. At a board meeting held in Richmond, B. L. Jordan, who represented the creditors, endorsed the present administration. He said $11,000 dollars had been paid him on the debt, including interest. Virginia Seminary opened for the fall semester with an enrollment of just more than one hundred students. "School authorities say this is encouraging as many students always enroll two or three weeks after school begins. It is probable the enrollment will be larger than any year within the last three or four."
An impressive appeal for the love and pursuit of learning was made by President Vernon Johns at chapel on the opening day. Significant among the president's remarks was the statement that "people are abandoning learning in a world where there is so much to learn." The president made a strong plea for self-reliance and originality among students stressing the importance of self help for the race. "The race gains more by what it does for itself than by what others do for it." (October 10, 1931:14)
In 1931 when a course in Negro history was suggested for the institution, students were hesitant about enrolling in the class because they feared they couldn't get credit for the work. Dr. Carter G. Woodson was contacted and he suggested that a study be made to determine to what extent courses in Negro history and Negro art were available in colleges and universities in the country. That study disclosed that a large number of white colleges and universities and a good number of Negro institutions of higher learning as well as a few secondary schools were offering courses in Negro history and art.
Nine college presidents from seven states and the District of Columbia accepted the invitation to Howard University School of Religion's sixtieth birthday bash. Presidents who were present were: Dr. John Hope of Morehouse College, Atlanta; William S. Nelson, Shaw University, Raleigh, N.C.; Vernon Johns; W. J. Hale, Tennessee State, Nashville, Tennessee; J. O. Spencer, Morgan College, Baltimore Maryland; W. J. Clark, Virginia Union University, Richmond, Virginia; W. H. Johnson, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania; J. B. Watson, A. and M. College, Pine Bluff, Arkansas; and Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson of Howard University. Vernon Johns was one of those on the program. Also on the program were Dean Kelly Miller and Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson. (J&G November 21, 1931:2)
The Journal and Guide (December 5, 1931: 2) announced that President Vernon Johns had returned from his speaking tour. Also in December Professor J. A. Jordan of Virginia Seminary received a genuine surprise at his home in Fairview Heights. "While attending a meeting, Mrs. Amy Jordan telephoned requesting him to report home at once. On entering the house, the only light visible came from candles on a beautiful birthday cake. Friends were scattered about the rooms of the spacious lower floor. When the lights were turned on, Professor Jordan was showered with congratulations. Those greeting Professor Jordan included Mr. and Mrs. Edward A. Spencer and Dr. and Mrs. Vernon N. Johns. The merriest sort of evening followed with progressive bridge and other unique games. Mrs. Pearl Barnette was presented a box of lovely embroidered handkerchiefs as prize for top score at bridge." (December 26, 1931:14)
Dr. Gordon Blaine Hancock spoke at the interracial forum at Virginia Seminary. (December 26, 1931:14)
In early 1932 President Vernon Johns was on a speaking tour. The first stop was New York City. (J&G January 23, 1932:14) In Lynchburg Mrs. Johns was hostess to the Swan Art Club. She entertained with classical selections and musical games. Mrs. Carrie Spencer received first prize for the guessing contest. (J&G January 30, 1932:14)
Rev. Vernon Johns spoke for Virginia Seminary at the burial of Rev. Charles H. Johnson, forty-two-year pastor of Lee Street Baptist Church. Family members in attendance included Dr. Charles S. Johnson professor of social science at Fisk University and former editor of Opportunity magazine. (J&G February 6, 1932:14)
On February 7 Congressman Oscar DePriest gave a speech at Virginia Seminary. Two thousand people heard the address on the Negro and his relation to the government, emphasizing the importance of the ballot for the Negro. He ridiculed the Communists' offer of social equality to the Negro as a decoy for gaining adherents among the race. "After they use us to gain their purpose they would forget all about us." The Congressman and his party were the guest of President and Mrs. Vernon Johns. A reception in honor of the congressman at the president's home followed. (J&G February 13, 1932:3)
President Vernon Johns returned from Howard University where he conducted the annual week of prayer. For a number of years, he has conducted such services at the leading black colleges of the country. In the same issue of the newspaper, Mordecai Johnson broke his long silence on the attacks against him. (J&G February 13, 1932:1 and 14) He wrote Mrs. Mordecai Johnson on February 16, 1932: "My dear Mrs. Johnson: Please accept this delayed expression of my gratitude for the fine dinner and fellowship which I had in your home on the occasion of my recent visit to Howard University. I hope you, Dr. Johnson, and the children are quite well and as happy as it is possible for the colored race to allow the first president of Howard University and his family to be. You have my complete loyalty and good wishes, yours truly, Vernon Johns, President."
February 27 Vernon Johns was presented to the citizens of Norfolk and the churches of Tidewater as he presented an address at Second Calvary Baptist Church. The day was Virginia Seminary Day at Second Calvary under the auspices of the Volunteers of Tidewater Virginia. The Volunteer Workers of Virginia Seminary launched a simultaneous drive of all of the churches of eastern Virginia to raise money for the college. It was hoped that this meeting will be one that would relieve the school of some financial embarrassment and lend encouragement to the faculty.
"The Baptist churches in all the villages and cities of Virginia will take special collections, Sunday, March 19, in a statewide drive for Virginia Seminary, according to Rev. C. P. Madison, first vice- president of the state Baptist convention. Drs. W. H. R. Powell and W. F. Graham are lining up the forces in Philadelphia. Reverend Madison pointed out that there are more than one hundred men from Virginia Seminary pastoring. Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York, has already held its "Seminary Day" and sent over $300 to the school." (J&G March 12, 1932:5) President Vernon Johns was on still another speaking tour. The Virginia Seminary chorus headed by Miss K. Evelyn Warren, held a social at the home of President Vernon Johns. Mrs. Vernon Johns was hostess to the Gregory Hayes Club. (J&G March 12, 1932:5)
Johns was one of the speakers at the funeral services of Mrs. Josephine Anderson, who was known as the "Mother of Virginia Seminary." She served on the committee which purchased the site of Virginia Seminary and she witnessed the laying of the corner stone of Hayes Hall, the first brick building. For many years she was treasurer of the Seminary building fund during which years thousands of dollars passed through her hands. She mothered every Seminary president from Dr. Gregory Hayes to President Vernon Johns. She was a great source of help and comfort to President Gregory Hayes who used to make his home with her. She provided work, gave food, clothing, and shelter to many Seminary students during the first years of the school. (J&G March 26, 1932:10)
Announcing that the Virginia Baptist State Convention would be held at Virginia Seminary, it was said that President Johns and his family had made great sacrifices for the school. (J&G May 7, 1932:2)
Dr. R. H. Bowling, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Norfolk, Virginia, gave the baccalaureate sermon at the commencement for Virginia Seminary May 29. Dr. W. H. R. Powell, pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, Philadelphia, delivered the commencement message to the graduates of the academy on May 31. He pictured the economic plight of the Negro. "The mistake of the Negro," he said, "is that he has permitted others to monopolize the markets even in the Negro sections of our cities." But the Negro should not turn "red" in these hard times, he cautioned. He must achieve success financially and economically on character, thrift and moral integrity. The college commencement speaker on June 1 would be Rev. J. R. Henderson of Wheat Street Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. There were seven graduates of the academy and six from the college. (J&G May 21, 1932:16 and June 11, 1932:9)
Dr. Johns was not present at the baccalaureate sermon by Rev. R. H. Bowling because he went to North Carolina to preach two such sermons. But President and Mrs. Vernon Johns were host to the graduates of Virginia Seminary. (J&G June 4, 1932:10&14)
The Journal and Guide (June 11, 1932:9) reported that President Johns reminded the audience of the frequent prophecies of the failure of Virginia Seminary in recent years. He reiterated his conviction expressed in a public speech more than three years ago that "Virginia Seminary may stumble, but she will never fall." He thanked all who had assisted the institution and also expressed thanks to his faculty for their loyalty to the institution during the hard year. After the commencement program, President and Mrs. Johns entertained several faculty members along with Rev. J. Raymond Henderson at their residence.
The sixty-fifth annual session of the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the thirty-seventh annual session of the Woman's Baptist state education and missionary convention of Virginia met at Virginia Seminary in 1933. Rev. C. P. Madison was elected president of the convention. The noon devotional hour was conducted by the Rev. Howard W. Thurman. Thurman was chaplain of Morehouse and Spelman colleges and was daily speaker at the convention. President Johns gave an address on education in which he reassured the audience that Virginia Seminary had been restored to its junior college rating by the State Board of Education and that he planned to make the school accredited in everything else. He also addressed a joint session of the two conventions at the closing program. Applause greeted his announcement of a thousand dollar reduction in his salary as president of Virginia Seminary and the further statement that board and lodging at Virginia Seminary would be reduced to $12 a month, beginning with the year's work in the fall. (J&G June 25, 1932:5)
Rev. C. P. Madison praised the good work already done by Dr. Johns saying that Johns had proven himself to have no equal in pushing forward the work of our Virginia Theological Seminary and College, but he also asked the trustees of the school to meet at the opening of the college to decide on a budget which they would meet and to lift from the shoulders of the president the burden of going out begging for support. "The work of our school on 'The Hill' in Lynchburg is calling for us at this time as never before, not only for financial aid, but also for interest in helping to place the largest student body in the school this year that has attended the institution since its organization." (J&G September 10, 1932:4)
Dr. Johns announced that in an effort to aid Virginia Seminary a few friends of the school would sponsor a Diamond Dinner Ring Contest. The person in this contest who raised the highest amount of money would receive a diamond dinner ring. He also announced that five persons holding the master of arts degree would be added to the faculty. Increased farming and trucking facilities have enabled the school to reduce board and lodging to $12.75 per month. "The survival of Virginia Seminary is illustrating the capacity of the Negro to sustain his causes in the face of trying conditions. Almost three years of universal strain and upheaval in finance find it still going. It is even facing the future with a firmer faith than ever in its high and special mission to the Negro. The race sees as never before that it will be thrown eventually upon its own resources, and that the education it needs is training in self- reliance." (J&G July 9, 1932:16)
Mrs. Vernon Johns was guest and pianist at King's Mountain, North Carolina to witness the marriage of Miss Sue Bailey and Howard Thurman. (J&G July 16, 1932:14) A surprise birthday party was held for Mrs. J. A. Jordan. Mrs. Edward Spencer and daughters Mrs. Alroy Long and Mrs. Bethel Stevens were there as well as President and Mrs. Johns. (J&G August 20, 1932:11)
"Soon the Seminary Singers, a sextet which has been meeting with much success locally, will make a tour of the eastern states in the interest of Virginia Seminary and College. Trained by Mrs. Vernon Johns this group on Sunday sang in the leading Baptist churches of Lynchburg and were highly commended. They also won acclaim when they sang at the Virginia Hotel, white, and last Friday they appeared before a mixed audience. The singers plan to visit Washington, D. C., and several cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York." (J&G December 3, 1932:9)
January 7, 1933 (J&G: 9 of Richmond/Petersburg section) there was an article on the outstanding array of speakers at the month-long series of sessions commemorating the 136th year of Petersburg's Gilfield Baptist Church. Speaking were Dr. Walter H. Brooks of Washington D.C., Dr. Gordon B. Hancock of Virginia Union, Dr. Arthur Howe, president of Hampton Institute, and Dr. John M. Gandy, president of Virginia State. On Sunday night the sermon was given by Vernon Johns. Among the speakers was Rev. R. H. Bowling of the First Baptist Church, Norfolk.
On January 21, 1933 (p. 14) the Journal and Guide reported on one of the social activities Johns had to attend as president. He and Altona attended the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Diamond Hill Baptist Church. Monday night, January 9, marked the closing exercises. Dr. Vernon Johns delivered the principal address. At the reception were Professor and Mrs. Vernon Johns. Another activity was reported January 28, 1933. There was a vesper service held at Virginia Seminary. Dr. Vernon Johns spoke on "Good News in Bad Times." The Hampton Quartet gave several selections.
May 24-26 there was a joint session of the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the Woman's Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention. The president of VBSC was Dr. C. P. Madison. Education was the special project of Dr. Madison and he set forth the needs of Virginia State and College and told of its possibilities. In a letter before the convention Dr. Madison called special attention to Dr. Vernon Johns and added "To talk to him on the kind of education that is needed for today, you will understand him better and be able to ascertain his deep interest in the future good of the Negro youth." (April 22, 1933, p. 3)
May 6, 1933 (p.8) the Norfolk Journal and Guide reported that Dr. Madison said "Your president is serving his first year and is endeavoring to make some recommendations safeguarding our educational work: made greatly necessary in order to relieve the burden on Dr. Vernon Johns, the president of our school; for we are facing a crisis that is calling for action sufficient to warrant the maintenance of our institution." The president was worried about the seminary sinking beneath the tide of depression.
He added "Dr. Vernon Johns, our president, has carried on these three years and kept the doors open with a fine student body in attendance. A visit to the school and a look at the student body and numbers there will repay anyone for the trouble taken, and in addition thereto, will convince them, whether they be for or against him, that we are a long ways from the cemetery. We cannot give him too much praise for the high quality of work he is doing as its head." The words "whether they be for or against him" indicated some strife over Johns.
At the conference itself Dr. Madison recommended that the trustee board of Virginia Seminary and College meet at least once a year in Lynchburg for the purpose of going into every detail of the school's operation in order to more efficiently carry on the work entrusted to them.
Dr. Madison remarked that since the school only has a junior rating most of their students usually left after two years for their senior college work or went to some other "A" college. "What our president needs is more support from the constituency of this convention so that the finances needed to carry on our work may not prove an intolerable burden for him." (May 27, 1933 p. 1)
There was a discussion of bringing together the two Baptist organizations in Virginia. The other organization was the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Vernon Johns said that "We are in favor of the proposed union only provided that it intends to bring its influence and support to the fostering of an independent movement among Negroes such as represents not what other people are willing to do for him but what Negroes can and will do for themselves." "We do not propose to abandon our task of educating the Negro race into accepting responsibility for its own enterprises, educationally and otherwise. We believe that in this direction only can the Negroes' ultimate salvation be reached." (June 3, 1933 p. 15 NJ&G)
Altona Trent Johns
March 11, 1933 (p. 7) the Journal and Guide reported that the Virginia Seminary Sextet had finished a successful tour. The group was under the direction of Mrs. Vernon Johns, pianist. The cities visited included Norfolk, Newport News, Williamsburg, Richmond, and Petersburg. On April 8, 1933 (p. 4) the Journal and Guide reported that Mrs. Altona Johns was the guest pianist at Court Street Baptist Church assisting the choir in its presentation of "The Seven Last Words of Christ" by Dubois a sacred cantata, Palm Sunday night. The pastor was Rev. P. W. Cook. And then in April 24 (April 15, 1933 p. 4) it was reported that the Virginia Seminary Sextet would appear at Diamond Hill Church at 8 p.m. with Mrs. Altona Johns as pianist.
May 20, 1933 Mrs. Johns was hostess to the Swan Art Club on Friday evening. The evening was spent in perfecting plans for a final outing. (May 20, 1933 p. 11 J&G) May 27, 1933 (p. 3 J&G) reported that Miss Ruth Ellis, dramatist, was a house-guest of Mr. and Mrs. Johns. While on the campus she rendered several selections in Virginia Seminary Chapel. She was en route to Greensboro, North Carolina. October 7, 1933 (p. 13) the Journal and Guide reported that "The Twilight Singers under Mrs. Johns have returned from their northern tour in the interest of Virginia Seminary."
Vernon Johns and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Vernon Johns had an ongoing relationship with Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Rev. A. C. Powell Jr. was the annual commencement address speaker at Virginia Seminary June 3, 1931. (J&G May 23, 1931:2)
While Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was at Colgate he would make trips to New York City. On one of these trips he met and fell in love with a nightclub dancer and Broadway actress, Isabel Washington, from Savannah, Georgia. She was a member of the chorus line at the famed Harlem Cotton Club. She had separated from her husband at the time and had a two-year-old son. Adam met her on one of his weekend forays into Harlem when he was in the audience of Harlem in which Isabel played. They soon fell in love. His father was very upset about the relationship. He did not want the future head of Abyssinian Baptist Church to have a divorced showgirl with child as a wife. (Hamilton 1991:51)
Adam did not take his father's heed. The marriage occurred on a rain-soaked Wednesday, March 8, 1933. Three thousand people braved a rainstorm to attend the wedding. They packed the main auditorium, balcony, and corridors of the church. Hundreds of others stood in the streets with raised umbrellas hoping to get a glimpse of the young couple. Reverend Powell Sr. and two other ministers officiated at the ceremony. The officiating pastors were the Rev. W. P. Hayes, former pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, and the Rev. George Simms, pastor of Union Baptist Church. Strict secrecy surrounded the honeymoon plans of the couple, but it was believed that they would go to Bermuda as announced previously. The newlyweds left last Wednesday night for Lynchburg, Virginia, where they are to be the guest of Dr. Vernon Johns, president of the Virginia Seminary and College, until March 25 (Amsterdam News, March 8, 1933:1 and March 15, 1933:1&7).
One of Powell's biographers (Hamilton 1991:85) wrote that Isabel remembered shaking 2,000 hands in the receiving line. They immediately left for a two-week honeymoon, first for a few days to the farm of a "friend" in Virginia, then to one of their favorite vacation spots, Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. J&G of March 18, 1933 (pp. 1 & 15) reported that the Powells were in Lynchburg. The married couple left Harlem the same night of their marriage to be guests of Vernon Johns and his wife until March 25.
"Isabel enjoyed her rustic honeymoon, with the exception of the repeated requests that she milk a cow. Farm life and the countryside held no appeal for her; that was one of the reasons she had left Savannah. As for the groom, he had an engaging ability to ingratiate himself in almost any surrounding. On a farm Adam became a farmer, doing farm chores and asking intelligent questions. His wife thought the talent unique. Rising in the early morning, she was apt to find her husband bent beneath a cow, drawing milk." (Haygood 1993:29-30)
Chauncey Spencer wrote that he could recall Powell joking about how the Abyssinian Baptist Church had given his new wife, Isabel, a seven thousand dollar mink coat and a five thousand dollar cash gift to honeymoon in Trinidad in Jamaica. And here he was in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Powell came back to Virginia to speak at the Virginia Baptist State Convention in May. Dr. C. P. Madison said that Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and his erudite son had both supported Virginia Seminary's educational program; and "when we consider their loyalty, every person who has been more closely connected to the work than they, ought to awaken himself to the cause as never before." (May 6, 1933, p. 8 J&G)
June 3, 1933 (p. 2 J&G) reported that Reverend Adam C. Powell, Jr. talked on "The Church and the Community." He also led the round table discussion afterward. He told the audience how they could adopt the extensive social welfare program instituted by the Abyssinian Church. He revealed there are thirty-three workers employed on the staff and that the church's social activities touched between four and five thousand people. He spoke of ways for the church and the community to come together. "The church must become 'red hot' -- must become radical," he asserted. "The church should no longer be in the rear guard, but in the vanguard. The church should stand on the hill tops letting its light shine. The church must become militant -- must become progressive and yet it must retain its self- respect." Vernon Johns could not have said it better.
On one of his trips, Johns had a flirtation with death. J&G (July 22, 1933 p. 1) reported that Johns was painfully injured near Roanoke, Virginia last Saturday morning when he leaped from an automobile traveling fifty miles per hour down a mountain side after its brakes had burned out. He received a severe cut on his right hand, but otherwise he had just minor cuts and bruises about his body. The driver of the car was the Reverend R. Wilson. Rev. Wilson was o.k. as he rode the car until it reached level ground. He said he stayed in the car despite the danger, putting his trust in God. They were en route to Roanoke from Floyd, Virginia, where Johns had appeared as the principal speaker on a Sunday school convention program. The accident occurred on Ben Mountain, one of the most lofty of the ranges in that part of the state. After the accident, Johns walked down the hill to a garage where he received first aid treatment. The car being repaired, they drove to Roanoke where Johns received additional medical attention.
An ad for Virginia Seminary appeared in the J&G August 19, 1933 (p. 16). It said that the school-college- theology center had a healthful, hill climate and wholesome atmosphere. "Our farm and dairy facilities enable us to reduce student expenses to $12.75 dollars per month." September 23, 1993 (p. 4) the J&G reported that Rev. C. P. Madison called on the state Baptists to support the seminary with financial assistance. November 18, 1933 (p. 11) the paper reported that the Virginia Baptist State Convention had given seventy-five tons of coal to Virginia Seminary. It also reported that Lynchburgers were proud of the success of Virginia Seminary, "some of the richest minds in the race being included in the student body."
Back to the Farm Movement
Vernon Johns was part of the "Back to the Farm" movement. This movement touched some sensitive spots. Its major supporters were Kelly Miller, Pres. Benjamin F. Hubert of Georgia State Industrial College, P. B. Young, editor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, and Gordon Blaine Hancock. (Gavins 1977:63) The Back-to-the-Farm movement won another disciple in the person of President Arthur Howe of Hampton Institute, who in an editorial in the current issue of the Southern Workman, pleads for an improvement of rural life since "it has become evident that there is a limitation on the number of people who can live happily away from the soil." (J&G December 17, 1932:7)
Howard University sociologist Kelly Miller, in an address before the Virginia Country Life Association at the Virginia State College in its second annual conference, December 6 and 7, said "The Negro in the city is a serf; his life is being controlled by others; he has little independence and has little chance of getting it. . . .On the other hand, Virginia's 24,000 Negro farm owners have a high degree of independence, control their own lives, and enjoy a higher degree of social security." He pointed out that the race's loss of land ownership was the "saddest thing in all history" and pointed to the fact that land owned by Negroes has declined in amount from 65,000 square miles in 1910 to 58,000 square miles in 1930. (J&G December 14, 1935:11)
Vernon Johns was always engaged in some form of business so it is not surprising that in 1933 he became president of the Farm and City Products Company, Inc. In November 1933 in the National Urban League publication Opportunity, Johns published the lecture "A Negro Agrarian Culture." The editor remarks that Vernon Johns, President of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College, a clergyman by training, was actually practicing what he preached, referring to Johns' continued interest in farming.
Johns waxed lyrical in describing the advantages of country living over city life. Unlike the city, "where the sun is viewed only before he tumbles headlong down the straight edges of a skyscraper," the country, exclaimed Johns, "is where the tomato blushes red in green and perfumed vestments. . . . This is where the forest grows night and day to feed the poor man's fire and build the shelter for his children." Johns asked his readers to contrast "Unfinished rows of dingy brick walls, stretched in one solid, sordid piece of masonry from Avenue to Avenue . . . (with) a rural sunrise, green fields and brown furrows, flocks to which the firstlings have come; dogwoods in blossom over endless acres, fields of grass golden in the harvest." Another contrast was "The city's reigning scent is the smell of exhaust pipes and the breath of abbatoirs" while "The odor of the country is the fragrance of new mown hay." (quoted in Taylor 1976:82)
There were many critics of the Back to the Farm movement and little came of the movement. On February 4, 1933 (p. 16) the J&G had an article entitled "Go Slow on Back to Farm Agitation Says Man of the Soil." Concerning the question of whether Negroes should remain on, or return to the farm, T. M. Campbell, veteran extension agent of the United States Department of Agriculture, said that any back to the farm advice should be given in moderation. He was a speaker at the Alabama Interracial Commission.
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