Atlanta-born Georgia Douglas Johnson was the best known African-American woman poet of her time, as well as an accomplished playwright and journalist.
At the peak of her popularity n the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson was the most widely-read black woman poet in America since the abolitionist Frances E.W. Harper,1 and Georgia’s most famous black woman writer before Alice Walker.2 Johnson published her poetry to considerable acclaim between the 20th century’s world wars, and her one-act plays helped to drive the community-based New Negro Little Theatre movement of the era.
Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born on September 10, 1877, in Atlanta, Georgia to Laura (nee Douglas) and George Camp. (In an autobiographical sketch Johnson recalled her first school days were in Rome, Georgia, and while still a young child she moved to Atlanta with her mother.3 ) In 1893 she graduated from the Normal School of Atlanta University and, after teaching school in Atlanta and nearby Marietta, she attended Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. She returned to Atlanta and served briefly as a school principal, and in 1903 she married Henry Lincoln Johnson, a prominent attorney and Republican politician, and they moved in 1910 to Washington, D.C. In 1916 The Crisis printed Johnson’s first published poetry, and two book-length collections of her verse soon followed: The Heart of a Woman (1918), and Bronze (1922).
After the death of her husband in 1925, Johnson was forced into the workforce as a single parent, and over the next decade she managed to help put her two sons through law school and medical school respectively, while she continued to write. Beginning with the one-act play Blue Blood, which she published in 1926, and Plumes, which won Opportunity’s coveted first-prize for a drama on black life in 1927, she wrote at least twenty-eight plays.4 Although her popularity peaked in the 1920s, over the next few decades Johnson also wrote many songs, short stories, a biography of her late husband, and several other works which were salvaged from her house after her death, along with a “Catalogue of Writings” that documented the quantity and breadth of her unpublished works.
According to Johnson’s Catalogue, she produced at least two dozen “written and copyrighted” songs, including a “Georgia State College School Song” (for the future Savannah State University), and she collaborated with the classical singer/composer Lillian Evanti on several published pieces.5 Between 1926 and 1932, she also wrote weekly editorial pieces, entitled “Homely Philosophy,” that appeared in many major African-American newspapers. In 1928 she published her third volume of poetry, An Autumn Love Cycle, and in 1962 her fourth and final volume of poems, Share My World, was published.
Some critics have said Johnson’s own artistic output was rivaled in impact by her tireless support of Washington, D.C.’s black cultural and intellectual circle during the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Johnson opened up her home – what she called the “Half-way House” at 1461 S Street NW -- and presided over a lively weekly forum of African-American artists and intellectuals. Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, W.E.B. Du Bois, William Stanley Braithwaite, and Zora Neale Hurston were just a few of many the “Saturday Nighters” for whom Georgia Johnson’s “S Street Salon” was both “a freewheeling jumble of the gifted, famous and odd” in D.C., and a safe, supportive atmosphere “where Harlem Renaissance writers struggled with their literary work and where that work found its first audience.”6
In 1965, Atlanta University presented Johnson with as doctorate of literature, praising her as a
Sensitive singer of sad songs; faithful interpreter of the feminine heart of a Negro with its joys, sorrows, limitations and frustrations of racial oppression in a male-dominated world; dreamer of broken dreams who translated her disappointments into such memorable and immortal lines as: “The heart of a woman falls back with the night, / and enters some alien cage of its plight, / and tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars / while it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars … 7
Photo of Georgia Douglas Johnson used courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center of Howard University.
The following titles by n may be found in the Hall of Fame collections of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
Bronze: A Book of Verse. Boston: B.J. Brimmer, 1922.
An Autumn Love Cycle.New York: Vinal, 1928.
The Heart of a Woman. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
Bronze. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
An Autumn Love Cycle. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.
The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1997.
The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University, in Washington DC, holds the principal collection of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s personal papers.