CHAPTER 16. VAGABOND, 1933-1937
Vernon Johns: Traveling Preacher
Gandy (1977) wrote that "Sallie Johns told Altona to get a job. She took the advice and soon after Vernon left Virginia Seminary she took a job at a one-room school near Prospect, Virginia. She completed the term of the woman who couldn't complete because of illness and so Altona finished it for the magnificent salary of forty dollars per month. "
Out of a job as president of Virginia Seminary, Johns had to have noticed the dramatic change. As president his name was in the paper at least once every two weeks. Now he declined to near obscurity, only seldom being mentioned in the paper. Taylor Branch (1988:10-11) says that Johns went on the lecture circuit earning small lecture fees at black churches and schools up and down the East Coast. Wearing a tattered suit with books stuffed in the pockets, he would take the train out of Richmond. On his return, his brother would often meet him at the station with a fresh horse, and Johns would farm for a few days before his next lecture.
Train and horse were not the only way Vernon Johns traveled. In fact, he would jump into the car with a friend and leave the family for months at a time, preaching here and there. He hawked old books at ministers' conventions and sold subscriptions to fledgling magazines. He loved to travel and became more or less a bohemian.
Blacks had trouble finding motels and restaurants to serve them in the segregated South. To avoid trouble, Johns carried blocks of cheese and quarts of milk packed in ice and would take off on virtually non-stop drives accompanied by non-stop recitals of poetry. Branch (1988:10) mentions that "Johns calculated distances in units of poetry," and if he tired of verse he waded into military history.
From his resignation as president of Virginia Seminary, the name of Vernon Johns did not reappear in the Norfolk Journal and Guide until October 19, 1935 (p. 12). It was reported that he was the principal speaker at the installation of the Rev. F. E. Alexander as pastor of the First Memorial Baptist Church, Christianburg, Virginia. The regular installation service was held on Sunday October 6 and the choir and many of the members of the Court Street Baptist Church of Lynchburg accompanied their pastor(?), Rev. Mr. Johns to this city to take part in the services. The visiting minister preached at both morning and afternoon services. Reporting that Vernon Johns was at Court Street Baptist Church could mean that the paper just got its facts wrong or that Johns gave the paper misleading or confused information.
Johns once again virtually disappeared from the Journal and Guide, at least until the announcement of his next job as pastor in Charleston, West Virginia. There were only a couple of one sentence references to him during the period from 1935 to 1940.
In a deed of November 8, 1934 (Prince Edward County Courthouse) Sallie and Robert Johns turned over land of 163 acres in the Buffalo River district including any buildings to Altona Johns for $1,500 dollars. To the north was the public road from Farmville to Darlington Heights, east of the property was the land of Leslie Davenport, to the south the property of J. S. Carter, and to the west land owned by Vernon Johns, J. S. Carter and N. F. Johns.
Vernon Johns At Home
Being a prophet is a rough job. Often the prophet is on edge and angry. This does not make for a very patient husband and father. The job of prophet makes being a good father harder, especially if the children, seeing their father not as prophet but just as an overbearing "dad", resist the high standards imposed by the prophet father. A prophet if likely to expect too much from his own children. Combine this with, in Vernon Johns' case, a somewhat insensitive attitude toward personal suffering and the combination can be deadly.
Memories of life in the Johns' house are provided by Jewel Clark. Jewel Clark's sister, Violet, married Robert Johns, the brother of Vernon. Jewel had worked in the Johns's household as a young woman. She describes a household in constant turmoil. What she remembered most was all the "fussin' and fightin'." She added "I used to be scared to go down there."
On the television program "Saturday Night with Connie Chung", Ms. Chung said Johns "was a farm boy who mastered German Greek Latin and Hebrew. He was a poet, prophet, and preacher who never stopped thinking of himself as a farmer." And "He sowed the seeds for the biggest social movement of our times."
Asked if Vernon was much of a farmer, she replied "No. He called himself a farmer, but he wouldn't know how to farm. And guess what? When he got ready to go to church, he would put on one shoe of one color and another of another color." Was Robert the farmer, if Vernon was so bad? "No, he wasn't no farmer." Well, then who actually ran the farm? "Nobody. (Laughter.)"
Garnell Stamps asked Alton Morton, who knew Vernon Johns when Morton was a young man, if Vernon Johns recited poetry while he worked in the field. He said "Yes. And sometimes he would talk to himself, reciting poetry to himself. He was working and talking to himself. And this foreign language; I didn't know nothing about that." Morton later added that "He continued talking his foreign language. When he get in that mood I said now I better get away from here. I just knew. I just go back and he would come back down to earth. And he would give me books to read up in that store. He had a library out of this world."
Jewel blamed the mother, Sallie Johns, for the turmoil of the family. "She was very outspoken. She was a woman who stood up . . nobody run over her: her son, grown people, nobody run over her. They respected her." She recalls that one day two of Sallie Johns's grandchildren were walking away from her while she was trying to talk to them. They were on high steps and their grandmother knocked them both down the stairs. "She knocked them both down cause they wouldn't stay and listen to her." Jewel added "And those were some high steps too." On the other hand, Sallie Johns was good to Jewel and her brother, Tracy. "She wasn't mean or a person who took advantage."
Jewel described how the brothers were always fighting with each other. Referring to Vernon Johns as Doc, she said that "Doc always cussed pretty. He would say (imitating Vernon's Southern drawl) ‘God damn Robert. You ain't nothin' but a God-damned fool.'" They feuded so much that they became infamous in the neighborhood. People would say, "If you want to hear a good feud . . . And everybody would come. You could hear ‘em a mile away."
Vernon loved to wear long johns around the house. He was always trying to get Robert to do one thing or another. When Robert would refuse to follow Vernon's orders, Vernon would chase Robert around the property. Sallie Johns would pick up a stick of wood and chase after Vernon saying "You better not touch my baby. You leave my baby alone." Jewel said "She goin' to beat her son up for runnin' her baby." One time Vernon chased Robert into the barn. To get away from Vernon, Robert climbed the steps up to the loft. There he found a pitch fork. Seeing that the tide had now turned, Vernon quickly retraced his steps. Robert was soon after him, chasing Vernon with the pitchfork pointed at the flap in the back of Vernon's long johns. "They were always threatening each other." "I thought they were the most fascinating people I had seen. I never saw any people fight like they fought."
Vernon's sister Bertha would also fight. "She would come visit her mother. When she'd get ready to go, she'd get in the car. Then she'd have to get back out of the car and go fight with her mother or Doctor Johns. They always got to fight with each other." Bertha's husband asked why they always had to fight and Bertha said "You mind your business. This is the Johns's family. You're just lucky you got in here."
Henry Powell (interview with Louise Williams, November 7, 1997) said that Mrs. Berryman told him that when Sallie Johns died, the whole family was at the funeral waiting for Vernon to arrive. He arrived considerably late and the entire family jumped on him for disrespecting his mother's funeral. Vernon replied: "Well, ain't she as dead as she's ever gonna' be?"
Jewell said she never saw Doc fight with his wife. But she noted that the couple acted as if they were not married. "You never knew they was husband and wife." One reason was because "they was apart most of the time."
One woman who was a very good friend of Mrs. Altona Johns had some very strong negative opinions about Vernon Johns. She said that many times Altona stayed overnight at her house. She described him as a loner and very opinionated with a lot of hate for white people.
Henry Powell also agreed with the "loner" description. "He would come down to the country and stay in the store and sleep on the counter. It was cold and I went down there and got him and we sat up half the night drinking coffee. And he showed me how to cook steaks. Laugh and talk all night long. He was often by himself."
The anonymous woman also added that Vernon Johns was uncouth. For instance, the interviewee is a very neat housekeeper with a flair for preparing aesthetic looking food dishes. Once she served Vernon a glass of tea with some mint leaves sticking out of the glass. Vernon growled to her "What's this grass in here for?" and he removed the mint leaves from the glass. This was just one example of his lack of regard for any of the finer things of life. It also hurt her feelings. The interviewee is very fastidious about how her bath towels are arranged in the bathroom. She deliberately and carefully made sure that the tiny towels matched the decor. She carefully provided Vernon with his own towel. But after Vernon Johns got through with his bath, his hostess found to her horror that all the towels in the bathroom were on the floor. He had used them to cover the floor and walked on all of them.
Because her husband was so uncouth, Mrs. Johns was often "so embarrassed". "She always was apologizing for him. She would always have this funny little smile as if to say ‘You know how men are.'" Henry Powell says that his own contact with Altona was "extremely limited" and that Vernon "didn't talk much about her."
Henry said that "He was no prude. . . . He had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. And not all of them were suitable for mixed company. At Reeds Cafe in Farmville he openly bought beer and drank it at the table which just wasn't done in Virginia. Vernon told of the time in West Virginia that he coughed and barked in such misery in a hotel room. His roommate for the night said "I have a quart of bourbon in the back. Drink some. It will relax you so you'll sleep." The man poured him a water glass full. Vernon drank so much that night that he said "The first half of the night I was afraid I was going to die, and the second half I was afraid that I wasn't."
Although not physically abusive to his wife, the interviewee felt Vernon was emotionally abusive. The one thing the interviewee really resented was that Vernon would criticize his wife's physical size in public. From a thin size she grew to 250 pounds, and then at one time to 300. Vernon would moan that "And she was 95 pounds when I married her." She contrasted Vernon negatively with his wife. "Altona was a beautiful wife who never would say one thing against the man -- not one word of animosity."
She felt that Vernon was a terrible father. She added that he was not a family man. He would be gone for two weeks at a time without a word to Altona of his whereabouts. There were times she would come home to Race Street and didn't have a stick of wood, no supper, no food, no heat. "None of the children know each other. And such beautiful children. Even the boys were beautiful." Their family life was terrible. He was mean to his mother; they would curse each other in the house.
Vernon's behavior in her house was especially upsetting to her since she loved Mrs. Johns so much. "She was so dear to me. . . . a beautiful person inside and out. Just a role model." She had beautiful hair. I would often wash it for her. I just loved her so much. I wanted to tell her so badly. How she got tied up with him, I don't know. She added that Altona knew what a bastard he was. Our hostess bemoaned the fact that Altona never really had a home of her own. She never really had any clothes -- "no decent clothes, no stockings".
Vernon Johns As Father
Vernon and Altona Johns had six children relatively close together. As the reader will recall, the first three children were males, in order, Increase (also known as Vernon Johns, Jr.), Billy, and John. The next three were females, Adelaide (known as Toni), Enid, and Jeanne.
Adelaide, Jeanne, Enid and John
Billy (William) and Vernon Jr. (with ham)
Vernon Johns was very strict with his children. He was also very hard on them. He expected them to behave as he did. But he was the prophet, not his children. It was not fair to expect them to act as a prophet would. Unfortunately, his strictness left little time for his children to enjoy the fun of just being kids. In the movie "The Vernon Johns Story", it showed the whites of Montgomery listening and laughing to the radio program "Amos and Andy". Toni was on the front porch swing also listening to the program. Arriving home, Vernon simply shut the program off with no comment. His over-demanding standards caused the girls to engage in the forbidden activities behind his back. In the film this is illustrated when the girls, whose feet hurt from walking, took the Jim Crow bus, in spite of the fact that their father had forbidden them to ride it.
Alton Morton said "One incident I do recall. Increase was over at the hospital. We were supposed to go out on a date. But his father wanted him to work on Sunday. I didn't know he was supposed to work so I came up there. He wanted to go because he wanted to go on a date but his dad wanted him to work." Going back to the Johns farm, he heard Rev. Johns berate his son. "And I was so surprised how he talked on his son. Mrs. Johns, bless her soul, said ‘Alton. Talk to Increase. His daddy wants him to work. Tell him to go on and work.' So I said ‘Increase, let's stay here and work.' He was so upset that he started walking down the highway. Vernon took a rock and threw it. If that boy hadn't jumped out of the way he would have gotten hit. There were sparks coming off that rock as it skipped down the highway. He (Increase) said he was going to leave home. He (Vernon Johns) had that temper."
Vernon Johns Jr. (letter to author December 8, 1997) wrote that "My father raised hams, cantaloupes, and watermelons. The one time he whipped me was he sent a load of watermelons, cantaloupes, and Virginia hams. He told me to go with the driver and get the money, and I was a young boy then, which I did and he paid me $50.00, which was a lot of money at this time. He told me before we went up the hill since I was in charge. He told me to check the heavy dirty planks along the way. The planks broke and the only thing I had to sell was the hams. When we returned I got my worst whipping."
Vernon Johns was somewhat cut off from his own feelings. Many years later, when Barbara Johns went down to Montgomery to escape the strife caused by the student strike she led in Farmville and was taken down to Montgomery for her own safety, she only went down reluctantly. She didn't want to go. Vernon Johns never asked her about her problems with the school strike in Farmville. And he never mentioned to her the great fury around himself in Montgomery. Barbara said she was hurt and angry about it until she realized that it was no more than what he expected of her.
In an interview with Jeanne Johns Adkins (9/10/97), she said of her father that he shouldn't have married and he shouldn't have had children. Jeanne said that Vernon Johns was not a patient father. "If he was emersed in a book and a baby was crying he would become very irritated. He could go from quiet to angry in two seconds." If we did not see a series of jumps in checkers, he would get mad. Asked if this upset her, she said "yes, it did". Henry Powell remarked that "I had seen him become very angry. I always hoped I would never be the victim of his wrath."
Jeanne said that "We loved to see him go. We had peace and quiet." Henry Powell added that the kids liked it when their father was gone. "And I can see why. You remember the movie incident when his son went to the movies and did you see that movie the second Vernon Johns story, the one by Kareem Abdul Jabbar? Vernon Johns found her in the movies and he brought her out of the movie. They couldn't relax with him there because his ideas of propriety were very different and it made them markedly different from the other neighbors. They didn't have the freedom that some of the other kids had. Partly that was because he was a preacher and the son of a preacher. But he was stricter than an average minister." Indeed, he may have even been somewhat of a bully to his own children.
In the movie "The Vernon Johns Story", they have Rev. Johns teaching Jeanne her fractions. As punishment for her wrong answers, she had to eat pieces of green apples after every mistake. She said "If I eat one more piece of apple I think I'm going to burst." Her father replied "Burst! Eat!" Toni said that "One time I ate so many apples that I got sick." Her father added: "But you learned your fractions."
Henry Powell (interview 1/31/96) mentioned another incident with the children involving some bottles of soda pop. "Well one time he went away and he left it to his two sons, no his three sons, while he was gone and they were glad to see him go because now they could drink all the sodas that they wanted. So they just drank sodas and drank sodas. And instead of stepping outside to use the toilet they urinated in the bottles from which they had drunk and then they put the bottles in the case. Rev. Johns came back unexpectedly and found these bottles of urine. And he, this will give you some idea, and he reached down and took a rope and tied these bottles around their waists and made them wear them for three days. Now if that makes him a disciplinarian (laughter)."
Nor was Vernon Johns inclined to compliment his offspring. "Of course, a compliment is nice once in a while," Jeanne said. When Enid became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society, her father did not praise her but said that she was only doing what was natural for a Johns. "So, you're a Johns. That's expected of you."
Vernon Johns was very demanding as a father. One Christmas day, he woke the children at 4 a.m. and said they were going to talk about such matters as the works of Shakespeare and Grant's strategy at the Battle of the Wilderness. This undoubtedly was not too pleasing to the children. Another time, for Arbor Day, Jeanne had to find a poem for school. Her father told her "I know you don't plan to pick ‘Trees'." Unfortunately for Jeanne, this was the very poem she had selected. Her father told her that they would write a new poem. So she was up all night with her father writing a long, complicated poem. "He wanted me to recite it from memory in front of the entire class. I did recite it from memory, but two seconds after it was over I forgot it. If he told you to do something, you had better do it. I was a Johns, and there was no question that I could do it."
Vernon Johns was at times an embarrassment to his children, especially his clothes. Alton Morton said that Johns always told him that "There is nothing in clothes. Some people think you got to wear it in clothes. A man's mind is what you got to develop. It's not in the clothes. That's secondary." Henry Powell added that Johns frequently said "You pride yourself on your expensive wardrobe and your brothers are naked. And you pride yourself on your resplendent tables and your brothers are hungry." At times Johns would preach in his work clothes. But the children often did not appreciate having their father live out his philosophy. Henry said that his kids were always after him about his clothes. "Billie told me once that his father was going somewhere and looked so bad that Billie took off his shoes or his pants to give to his father. He absolutely didn't care."
Jeanne said that, in spite of her father's many faults, her mother had a great respect for her father's brilliance. She would not have traded one second of her life. She came from a middle class life, but "she wanted the mind". Asked if the many firings of her father were upsetting to the family, Jeanne responded "Mother knew she was in no normal situation. She could keep the home fires burning. We just rolled with the punches." She added "Mother was a gentle person. If she were not, the two of them would have killed each other." If Altona disagreed with her husband, he would often become "overwrought".
Altona must not have not seen her husband that much. Henry Powell agreed "He was gone much of the time. It was his personality, he had to do that. I don't think he could have remained static."
Speaking of her father's temper and occasional use of violence, Jeanne made quite a few references. She said that
people say that the Johns are the aggressive ones, but it was really the Prices. She described Sally Price, her grandmother, as the fiery one, whereas the Johns family were gentle. For example, a person who came out to the house to survey the property referred to Vernon Johns by his first name. But, since Vernon was seventeen years old, Sallie Johns thought that the man should have referred to him as Mr. Johns. So she tied the surveyor to a chair to make sure that he was able to apologize to Vernon Johns when Vernon came home.
Jeanne added that her father "did not use that much violence. He mostly responded verbally. But if he put his bottom lip out, there was trouble coming." She provided an example. "We were driving through Mississippi and stopped at a stop light. Some white Mississippi teenager pulled up in a car and called my father ‘boy.' My father jumped out and had the boy up on the roof of the car and made him apologize." She said "My father was so bodacious that he shocked white people. They thought of him as a crazy nigger. There he goes again they would say."
One day Henry Powell found Vernon Johns in a pigpen which was very close to the store and Vernon was beating a pig. Vernon told Henry "This pig (laughter) wont stay in the pigpen and I'm trying to teach him that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence." After finishing talking with Henry, Vernon picked up his club and started beating the pig again. On another occasion Vernon Johns and a pig were in a big iron tank. Henry asked about the pig and Vernon replied "Oh, him. He's in hell. (Laughter.)" Henry added, "I think of him with a great deal of fondness. I can just hear him laughing."
Jeanne said that her mother was the one who really took care of the family economically after Vernon Johns left the presidency of Virginia Seminary. Whatever her father brought in financially she used as bonus money. But Jeanne added vehemently that "We were not poor. We had pocket change. We didn't have the fur coats and cars like the other kids, but who did they come to when they were having trouble with their homework? We had the mind."
Jeanne agrees with many others that Vernon Johns was not a good businessman. "He dispensed knowledge more than he dispensed goods." Once a fellow preacher bought some bad cantaloupes and then complained about them to Vernon Johns. "O.K. When I say my prayers I'll tell the maker of the cantaloupes." From all his business efforts, her father just made pocket change. "But that wasn't the point. It was to show entrepreneurship. Dad thought blacks were parasites. Blacks could not last one hour on what they actually produced."
Asked if her father was a good farmer, she said "He liked to stand back in the shade and give orders."
Perhaps a little too defensively (and unnecessarily so) Jeanne said that her father's "real job" was on the lecture circuit. "You could get $200, or $500 from Howard University. It paid good to lecture. Back then they had Sunday chapel, and Religious Emphasis Week." She remembered one story about the time a church gave her father $5 dollars for his speech. The church representative said "It's not much. But we're not really trying to pay you." He returned the money and said "Well, take it back and try this time to pay me."
Thinking of the positive memories of her childhood with her father, Jeanne said that "He would bring ice cream to us. He loved Dairy Queen and would take us, not for us, but for himself." In the film The Vernon Johns Story, Rev. Johns said to Jeanne eating an ice cream cone: Jeanne how many times have I told you not to lick your ice cream? With your tongue sticking out like that you look like a dog. Bite your ice cream. Go on, bite it." Later that night in bed her sisters teased her and mocked their father: "Jeanne. Don't lick your ice cream. Bite it." Jeanne said "He said I looked like a dog." "Well you do look like a dog." They all laughed until they heard their father roar "Girls! Quiet!"
When asked what her father taught her, she welled with pride and said: "Just to hear him recite poetry. He came to mother's studio, she was teaching Shropshire Lad. He sat there and recited twenty-two stanzas from memory. We just had a good liberal arts education from being with dad." Toni Johns (Saturday Night with Connie Chung) said: "He was magical when it came to poems and literature."
Living with Vernon Johns was not easy, but it appears that Jeanne has now come to terms with it somewhat. Philosophically, "the pluses far outweigh the minuses." She is obviously proud of her father's brilliance and accomplishments. "Two weeks in his presence was worth ten years in another person's." She said that "It wasn't an easy childhood. But it wasn't a difficult childhood. It was a dichotomy." She did say that "He was a good father, but absent most of the time." She added: "It's nice being Vernon Johns's daughter."
Henry W. Powell said "He was a strange, strange guy. He was eccentric. You know that without a question he was one of a kind."
Mentor for Young Black Men
Vernon Johns befriended a number of young black men, among these Henry Powell, L. Francis Griffin, Tracey Spencer, Benjamin Marshall, and Alton Morton. (He also had some influence on young black women, such as Barbara Johns.) These young men provided him with a more accepting audience. They were less likely to be afraid, having less experience with Jim Crow, and less likely to feel the necessity to oppose Johns's message.
Alton Morton said that "When I went into World War Two he was the only one that gave me a going away party." Henry interjected "He thought so much of your father." Continuing Mr. Morton said "He invited my parents. He said we're going to give this boy a going away party. When we got there he had several baskets of peas or butter beans and I was so disgusted . . . he was so serious. I thought that was the party. Lord have mercy. And this is my going away party. He (Vernon Johns) said ‘Yeah. This young man; I admire him and we're going to give him a going away party. So when I finished with the beans, they opened this green curtain-like thing and it brought tears to my eyes. They had chicken and they had everything and something was on there like a roast turkey; everything that you could imagine." Johns said "You're going into the army, but you'll be back." Alton replied: "Sure I hope to be back. I don't want to die anytime soon."
Benjamin Marshall (interview November 6, 1997) was a young man when he first met Vernon Johns. He used to hunt quail on Vernon's property. Vernon would see Ben and say "I'll go with you. I know where some quail are." Ben had an automatic shot gun and Vernon had a pump-action shotgun. But while Ben killed quail, he never saw Vernon kill anything. The two would sit down on the ground in the woods. Vernon would often lay down. They would talk about almost any and all subjects. Ben said he really enjoyed the talks. Ben only had two and a half years of formal education so he used Vernon Johns, and later Rev. W. H. R. Powell, as his teachers. He said that both men were great teachers. He still has the book Physics Made Simple that Vernon gave him. Johns even wrote a short message and autographed it.
Ben said that he spent every moment he could with Vernon Johns. Ben put the roofing shingles on the big house with the help of Vernon. He said: "Vernon showed me what you could do with the land." He said in those days the paper would not carry a story of a black man except it he was a thief or a robber, but it carried a picture of the five and a half pound sweet potato that Johns grew.
He also credits Johns with showing him how to be a businessman. For instance, Vernon Johns knew somehow that flour prices were going up. So he had Prince Edward Mills in Farmville send him a truckload of flour. The black truck driver unloaded the flour into Vernon's store and then said that his boss told him to bring back the money. Vernon explained that he did not have the money. The driver responded that he would have to take the flour back. Vernon said "You can't take anything out of my store. I've got thirty days to pay for it." The driver was put off by Vernon's stand but there was little he could do about it. Later Vernon put the flour in individual sacks and drove around selling the flour bags to the surrounding farmers. Ben said Vernon made a big profit. Ben was very impressed by this, adding that Vernon Johns had started him off in business which was in the construction industry. He said Vernon Johns didn't tell him what to do; he showed him what to do. "He had a knack of how to handle people."
Vernon Johns wanted to truck all the farm goods to the churches and there distribute them to those who wanted the goods. He wanted to use the church as a distribution point. He wanted to construct a network of churches.
One day when Ben was out hunting he ran into Vernon Johns. Johns told Ben that there were a couple of guys out hunting on Johns property and he wanted to tell them hunting was not allowed. He had spotted their car, but could not find the hunters. Ben and Vernon drove around and then Vernon saw the trespassing hunters out in the field. He told Ben to stop the truck. Vernon told Ben: "Now just in case they ask me why I let you hunt on my land and not them, you are now an official member of the corporation (Farm and City Enterprises)." Vernon went over and explained to the hunters that they were on private land. Later Ben dropped off Vernon at his house. Ben was thinking to himself that he would find the two hunters and tell them that he had nothing personally to do with having them thrown off the Johns property. But then he was brought up with a start when Vernon said to him suddenly "If you give me away you'll just cause problems for me and you." Ben was shocked that Vernon seemed to know exactly what he was setting out to do. He said this was the first time he was certain that Johns was some type of prophet.
He said that after his house burned down, Johns would often come and stay with him. He said that Vernon Johns would talk to him about events down in Montgomery. Ben said Vernon would get angry talking about the injustices done to him there.
Rev. W. H. R. Powell was a big inspiration to Ben Marshall also. Ben helped build the Hol-Reba Bible Conference center on the Powell farm. In fact, he put in place the two ponds there on the property. He still had the two books written by Powell: A Supervised Life (1945) and Illustrations to a Supervised Life (1968).
Ben was mad somewhat at the boys of Vernon Johns. He said that John Johns would not even help Vernon load watermelons on the truck that his father was taking to Howard University to sell. He was so close to their father that he had a hard time understanding the attitude of the Johns boys to their dad.
Ben had watched the "Saturday Night with Connie Chung" television program about Vernon Johns, but it made him so upset that he has so far refused to watch the television movie "The Vernon Johns Story". He was upset because Vernon Johns was portrayed as being such a harsh, tough man. He said that Johns "could be gentle as a lamb." Ben had seen the gentle side of Johns and he could not bear to see the one-dimensional portrayal of his mentor. He said a lot of the people in the neighborhood did not like Johns. They thought he was such a bad character that they were afraid to associate with him for fear that the association would also give them a bad name. He added that when people said nasty things about Johns "That hurt me."
Ben is so fond of Vernon Johns that he has been cutting the grass around the gravesite of Vernon and Altona Johns. But he is getting older now and worries who will do the job once he is gone.
Vernon Johns As Neighbor
When the main author was visiting the grave site of Vernon Johns, one of the white neighbors drove up in his pick-up truck to talk. Reid Foster lives up on Route 666 (which intersects with Route 665). He said that his family had been in the neighborhood since 1941, but that he had never heard of Vernon Johns until recently. He said that he never even heard his father mention the man.
When he discovered how a local hero had lived in the neighborhood, he asked some of his white associates about Vernon Johns. Foster's best friend, Leonard Slayton, who passed away at the age of ninety, provided him with a little of the white view of Vernon Johns. This, as one would expect, was quite critical, and much of it apparently apocryphal. Slayton reported to Foster that Vernon Johns would not pay his debts. "If he owed you for hay, he would give you alibis, not money." Foster said that it was his understanding that Vernon Johns was very rebellious -- a man who did not promote friendship between white and black. In fact, Foster said that his son told him about a story in the paper which stated that Vernon Johns "caused two people to get killed as a result of his ministry." But Mr. Foster could not remember any of the details of the story when asked about them.
As mentioned many such stories are apocryphal. False-story telling (Dollard 1949:278) is quite a bit like gossip. "Gossip is a universal form of aggression against others as well as a means of social control. It consists in telling the mean, embarrassing, insulting, and injurious things about other people, the things they would prefer to conceal.
Jewel Clark mentioned that some whites would attend Vernon Johns's sermons. They were curious to see the man the blacks talked of so highly. They usually sat in the back of the church, she said.
Vernon Johns thrived on conflict. Asked if Vernon enjoyed conflict, Henry responded: "I know that his superior intelligence made him master of any situation in terms of logic. If he came up against you or if you crossed him in a situation where he thought he was right you were going to have a problem on your hands."
Vernon loved to fight with his black neighbor across the Road, Mr. Davenport. Henry Powell (interview 1/31/96) said "Yeah, they were always at odds about something. The property line or you cut a tree on my side of the property or over some such, you know. So this particular day Reverend Johns came by my house in the morning and he said that I want you to go to court with me today. He said Mr. Davenport is suing me about my cows getting into his corn. So I said Doc I can't go. My mother and father had just come down from Philadelphia the night before and I said I got to take them to the grocery store. And I've got to get them squared away. They're going to be with me for awhile down country. And I said I can't go. He said well ok I'll see you later on.
"He went away and went on to the court house. Later that day I saw one of my neighbors, Mrs. Spencer. She said I'm sorry you weren't in court today. I said why? She said Vernon Johns performed. I said what did he do. She said well when the prosecutor was presenting his case he paid absolutely no attention. She said he had this book which he was reading and every once in a while he said "Oh, ho, ho" right out in court. And he completely ignored the prosecution. I suspect that he probably acted as his own attorney. But at any rate, when he got on the witness stand, she said the prosecuting attorney would ask him a question. And she said that his answers were long and round about and they included so many jokes and funny sayings that the courtroom including the judge was in stitches. She said the prosecutor was furious, beet red. He asked the judge ‘Can you make this man confine himself to simple yes and no answers.' She said the judge said, because he was obviously enjoying himself, ‘Well, no. If I deprived this man of the natural means of expression, his way of speaking that would be unfair to him. The man has a right to express himself in the manner to which he is accustomed.' And the case was thrown out of court, which, I suspect, was his strategy in the first place."
"The people in the community sort of sneered at him. They sort of made small of him. They didn't realize what they had quite frankly because he was so simple country folk and he was a man whose behavior was so outwardly ordinary they had no concept of the great respect and admiration that they held him in other quarters. They couldn't conceive of that in the neighborhood. And they were just shocked. They were shocked to find out when the film was made about him."
Chauncey Spencer and Black Aviation
Congressman Oscar De Priest of Chicago (Ploski and Kaiser 1971:318), Illinois was the first black to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the twentieth century and was the first to be elected from a Northern state. He became a congressman in 1929 when Martin B. Madden died, and De Priest waged a successful campaign for the vacant congressional seat. He thereby became the unofficial spokesman for the eleven million blacks during this period. He would last until 1934 when he was defeated by Arthur Mitchell, the first black Democrat elected to serve in the United States Congress. While he was president of Virginia Seminary, Vernon Johns brought de Priest to the seminary to speak and he had dinner at the Spencer home.
Oscar de Priest (Spencer 1975:28) heard that Anne Spencer's son, Chauncey, was interested in flying and suggested coming to Chicago to study to become a pilot. Chauncey thought about this and in 1934 he followed up on de Priests' advise that he come to Chicago and study aviation. He went to the Aeronautical University in Chicago. Shortly after his arrival, the administration there told him that the white students were uneasy about his presence at the school. They told him that they would give him their seal of approval if he took flight instruction from black instructors at the Coffey School of Aviation, which he did.
Spencer (1975:31) was a true pioneer for he helped open American aviation to blacks. The black National Airmen's Association wanted to promote black aviation and so decided to put on air shows. In October of 1938 they held the first one, at Chicago's Harlem Airport at 187th Street and Harlem Avenue. Dale White and Chauncey, sponsored by the NAA and the Chicago Defender, rented an airplane and set out on a goodwill tour of ten cities. They put on an air show wherever they stopped. It was designed to stimulate interest in the first national Negro air show to be held in Chicago. Enoch P. Waters, Jr., city editor of the Chicago Defender, suggested they climax the tour by going to Washington, D.C. to urge their Congressional representatives to push for the inclusion of the black in the Army Air Corps. The editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, Robert L. Vann, wanted black aviators to have a chance and the paper under his direction initiated and promoted the flight to force Congress to recognize black flyers. In 1939 pilots Dale White and Chauncey Spencer rented an airplane and set out on a goodwill tour of ten cities to drum up interest in the first national Negro air show to be held in Chicago.
In Washington D.C. a chance meeting with Senator Harry Truman (Spencer 1975:34-36) proved helpful. They explained their problems to him and Truman said he would try to help. "And help he did. Truman had spunk; he wanted to see our plane and arranged to come to the airport that afternoon. He said that if we had guts enough to fly this thing to Washington, he'd have enough guts to back us. And he did just that, helping put through legislation insuring that Negroes would be trained along with whites under the Civilian Pilot Training Program." Even Eleanor Roosevelt got into a plane with a black flyer. "She toured Tuskegee Institute. We were jubilant." On his return trip to Chicago, Chauncey and the other pilots were treated as heroes by the National Airmen's Association. That night he met Anne Howard, 16 years old, whom he later married.
It was twenty years after James Weldon Johnson first met Anne Spencer and helped bring her to at least some public recognition that he was killed in an automobile accident in 1938 not long after visiting the Spencer house at 1313 Pierce Street. While returning from his spacious summer home in Dark Harbor, Maine, Johnson (J&G, November 26, 1938:1) was killed while crossing the railroad tracks when a Maine Central train hit his car during a blinding rain storm. After that Anne Spencer (Greene 1977:80 withdrew somewhat from that public literary world which for twenty years had been a dominating factor in her life. She was nearing the age of sixty. She became more of a private person reducing her participation in affairs outside her home.
In 1940 Chauncey Spencer married Anne Howard who was quite a few years younger than Chauncey. In 1941 he joined the army but in September he was released because of his advanced age, thirty-five. He went into civil service and in his position with Personnel and Public Relations, he went to Tuskegee to check on the conditions there for black aviators. The aviators got a big break when, on March 22, 1941, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was started and trained at Tuskegee.
From 1943 to 1956 Chauncey lived in Dayton, Ohio. He worked as Civilian Personnel Employee Relations Officer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. In this position, he helped integrate the civil service. For this the secretary of the army decorated him for exceptional civilian service.
Virginia Seminary After Vernon Johns
After Vernon Johns left Virginia Seminary, Rev. W. H. R. Powell returned to the school. Virginia Seminary made improvements in its financial conditions under the leadership of Rev. Powell who continued to work without pay to rescue the institution. He had been elected president of the institution for a second time at a special meeting of the trustee board in Washington, D. C., in the summer of 1934.
Henry Powell told a story about his father's work at Virginia Seminary. "Let me digress a bit to tell you about a project I am involved in right now. A booklet would be a better term for it. It is called On Being a Part-time President. He (his father) tells that after the school collapsed they called his father in and asked him to be president again. And he agreed. . . . He gives a graphic description of the conditions of the school. He said ice stood two inches thick on the men's room floor. The treasury had $90 dollars. They had not a nickel's worth of commercial credit anywhere. The people from the water department came and demanded payment on the spot. My father gave $500 dollars from his own meager savings. At any rate there was an array of difficulties that he managed. . . .the indebtedness was $220,000 dollars ... $220,000 dollars back in the 30s, that was 34, so that was in the heart of the depression, but a tremendous debt without any commercial credit. In spite of all the discouragement, he decided to revive the school and revive it he did. Fifteen years and he charged the school not one red cent. Well, the ironic thing is and a thing that can make a fellow pretty bitter. All known debts of the seminary had been satisfied. . . . There has never been a word of thanks; fifteen years, can you imagine?"
In 1937 the Journal and Guide (January 16, 1937:11) reported that during the past two years Powell ran the school very efficiently. The school wanted to raise funds to enable it to close its current school year without a deficit. That was progress. On March 6, 1937 (p.13) the paper reported that a financial drive for Virginia seminary was a success and that Powell received great praise. This included a dime drive by the students that netted $305 dollars.
The paper reported more good news on April 17, 1937 (p. 11). At a meeting at Court Street Baptist Church, Rev. Powell announced that the Southern Aid Insurance of Richmond, Virginia, had recently canceled $25,000 dollars of $50,000 dollars that Virginia Seminary owed that company. And the other $25,000 dollars would be canceled later.
Dr. Powell in his address severely criticized disgruntled groups among the Baptist constituency who were clamoring for a full time president for the school. The school had been in debt to every president from Prof. Gregory W. Hayes to Dr. Vernon Johns, when Johns resigned. Dr. Powell said "I wasn't thinking of giving up my church in Philadelphia to come down to Lynchburg to starve." He explained that it was simply a matter of common sense to keep his church so that his family's needs could be supplied, while he served the school without a salary.
Dr. Powell said he was not responsible for the bad conditions at Virginia Seminary, which were a large source of dissatisfaction within the Baptist ranks, including lack of state recognition, debts, and lack of athletics. He had left the school in order to avoid receiving the blame for the oncoming financial collapse that he saw coming. He remarked that "When I left the school as president it was recognized by the state department of education. When I returned as president it had lost state recognition. Now who is to blame?" (He was not blaming Vernon Johns, but rather those in charge of Virginia Seminary.) He said that at the close of his first administration the enrollment was more than 200 but that it had dropped to less than 100 when he began his second administration. The enrollment was only forty-one in 1934-35, the first year of his second administration.
After making changes at the beginning of his second term at Virginia Seminary, Rev. Powell remarked that "The school owes not one penny of current debt. When money is borrowed for current needs, I make myself responsible for the debt. The school is operated on the pay-as-you-go basis." That the school had remained open for fifty years and received such a large sum from the race is proof, he asserted, that Negroes can stick together. It is the incompetence and dishonesty of some of our leaders, Dr. Powell said, which give us trouble. He did not say who might have been guilty of incompetence and dishonesty. He went on to add that "If Negroes are to overcome their handicaps, they must pursue education." He also stressed that the Negro must support his own institutions and causes instead of depending upon other people. Plans were being made to regain state recognition for the school as soon as possible. He also said that the students had begun athletics at the school.
The golden jubilee was celebrated May 30 to June 6, commencement week. President Powell had recently completed a tour of northern states in the interest of the jubilee during which friendly churches like the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York pledged their financial and moral support to the school. On May 29, 1937 the J&G (p. 12) reported that Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. would give the commencement address for the seminary on June 6. The Journal and Guide (June 26, 1937:15) reported that among those who attended the jubilee was Dr. Vernon Johns of Charleston, West Virginia. It is amazing that Johns attended given the circumstances under which he left the presidency of the seminary. But Johns had an amazing ability to focus on the future and dismiss the problems of the past.
A report on the jubilee celebration (J&G June 12, 1937:14) remarked on the progress of the seminary. Of its 1,500 graduates, 30 are or have been college presidents and professors. It graduated 300 ministers, 30 missionaries, 800 teachers, 15 county school supervisors, and 20 high school and county training school principals.
The threat of a student strike (J&G,. December 11, 1937:1&10) hung over the school on the eve of the school's entertainment of a special session of the Baptist State Convention, November 17 and 18, 1937. The reason for the strike was dissatisfaction with the low amount and quality of food available at the school. The strike was called off, however, in consideration of the extremely low charges for room, tuition and board, totaling less than forty-eight cents a day. A strike, however, did break out at Virginia Theological Seminary and College in which sixty-three of the 114 students at the school were involved. December 2, 1937 two sets of telegrams were received by many of the institution's trustees. One from the president read, "Student rebellion. Come Friday. Situation serious. Don't fail. Expense borne. W. H. R. Powell." That from the student strikers read: "Students striking. President inconsiderate. Students are not justly treated. Student Body Virginia Seminary."
The immediate cause for the strike was the suspension of Arthur Lee Scott for repeatedly being absent from the institution without official permission. For this he had been warned that another such absence would result in suspension. Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday young Scott had requested leave to visit his family in Richmond. When his request was denied by the dean of men, he proceeded to go anyhow. On being informed of this, President Powell suspended the student for four weeks. Several of the student leaders took exception and called a meeting of the entire student body to consider the case. They drew up a bill of complaint which mentioned another case in which four young men and women were threatened with suspension for "cutting" classes. One of these cases was that of a young man who had forty-five "cuts" out of the seventy days of the present school year. The students further charged that the school's secretary, Miss Thelma Ward, was guilty of usurping too much authority. She had seen a student break a window and insisted that he pay for its replacement. The strikers alleged that this was none of the secretary's business and that she should have left the collection of the bill to the business manager.
On Friday morning the trustees of the school arrived to see students engaging in breaking up classes by boisterous conduct, singing and yelling in the hallways and even invading classrooms to hang up signs and write their sentiments on the blackboards. The charges of the students were heard before a joint assembly of administration, faculty, and student body. The meeting was presided over by Rev. C. C. Scott of Richmond, chairman of the board. The end result was that the board found in favor of Rev. Powell and recommended that nine students, termed "trouble makers", be summarily dismissed from the institution. This punishment against the students was later rescinded.
In 1939 (J&G May 20, 1939:10) the largest crowd at the Baptist State Convention listened to a speech by Rev. Powell. He declared that it was fitting to tell the story of the seven years of his tenure of office, seeing that at this time the school had come from virtual bankruptcy to the place of present promise where a grant of funds was about to make possible a much desired expansion. Among his predictions for the near future were a power plant, an infirmary, and many additions and repairs to present buildings. (He actually spoke a little too soon because the potential contributor put too many conditions on the promised funds for it to be acceptable.)
Troubles were brewing for President W. H. R. Powell of Virginia Seminary (J&G, Mar. 24, 1941:10). C. P. Madison, president of Virginia Baptist State Convention announced that the college was looking for a full-time president and Rev. M. C. Allen was the likely candidate. A movement (J&G, Jul. 5, 1941:1), initiated at a meeting of the board of trustees in Lynchburg, to remove Rev. Powell as part-time president of Virginia Theological Seminary and College, was halted abruptly when the college head requested back salary amounting to $12,600 dollars which he said was due him as the result of action taken at one of the annual meetings of the Virginia Baptist State Convention. An earlier motion on the question of whether or not the college would have a full-time president, was carried 20 to 12.
Replying to complaints against him by some members of the board which included charges of inefficiency, lack of executive ability, and the unauthorized purchasing of a farm with college funds, Dr. Powell took the floor to deny all of the charges leveled at him and defied his accusers to produce proof of any description to substantiate what, it later developed, was hearsay. Dr. Powell threw a bombshell into the gathering when he reminded members of the board that a majority vote had been cast at a meeting of the Baptist State Convention in which it was decided to pay him a salary of $150 dollars per month. He pointed out that the action was taken in the face of an offer by him to accept the part-time presidency without compensation. Dr. Powell declared that, if the board would agree to settle with him for that amount, he would relieve them of the responsibility of discharging him. Previously the body had voted to appoint a committee of five to which the whole matter would be referred.
Reverend W. N. Hunter (J&G, Jul. 12, 1941:2), a member of the board, denied that Powell asked for back wages. Dr. Powell had told the trustees that a promise was made to pay him $150 dollars per month and that he had been there eight years. Someone remarked "that means we owe him $12,600 dollars." Hunter remarked "As a member of the board I feel it is unfair to Dr. Powell and to the work to put such a statement in the paper."
The headline ran "Philadelphia Baptists Back Dr. W. H. R. Powell." The Baptist Minister's Conference of Philadelphia and vicinity voted unqualified support and confidence in the work of W. H. R. Powell as president of Virginia Seminary in a meeting held in Philadelphia. The membership of 250 ministers unanimously said that the request for Powell's resignation by C. P. Madison had brought "widespread hurt and chagrin." "We deeply deplore the unethical, unbusinesslike and unchristian manner of treatment which was recommended for Dr. Powell. Our conference has unreserved and unfaltering confidence in Dr. Powell. . . . If this letter does not serve to deter the Board of Trustees from an unwise action, we are convinced that former supporters all over the nation will exercise the right to transfer their allegiance to schools that pursue a fairer policy." The resolutions were sent to Dr. W. E. Lee, chairman of the Seminary board of trustees.
The trustees, however, reversed their actions and turned down the proposal for a full-time president. (J&G, Aug. 9, 1941:1&2) Reversing its decision of a month ago by a vote of 23 to 20 to name a full-time president, the board of trustees of Virginia Seminary at its much publicized special meeting at Diamond Hill Baptist Church in Lynchburg July 29 voted to retain Dr. W. H. R. Powell as part-time president and named a special committee to work with him on the institution's future program.
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