In 1916, after serving as a United States Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Johnson began a new career, this time as field secretary for the NAACP. During his fourteen years with the organization, Johnson was an active speaker, lobbyist, and investigator. In 1920, he was sent by the NAACP to investigate conditions in Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915. Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation, in which he revealed the brutality of the American occupation and offered suggestions for the economic and social development of the island country. These articles were reprinted under the title Self-Determining Haiti.
Throughout his career with the NAACP, Johnson was a popular public speaker. Displayed here is a rare offprint of one of Johnson's speeches, the 1923 commencement address at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). In this speech, he reminded the graduates of the accomplishments of African Americans and exhorted them to earn a place in American democracy.
In 1928 Johnson published an article in Harper'sattempting to end the common misconception among white Americans that "the Negro reached America intellectually, culturally, and morally empty, and that he is here to be filled. . . ." By describing the achievements of African Americans like Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson, Johnson showed that the Negro is "an active and important force in American life; that he is a creator was well as a creature; that he has given as well as received, that he is the potential giver of larger and richer contributions."
Awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, Johnson tried his hand at history and produced Black Manhattan, a lively book about the Negro in New York emphasizing the artistic and literary accomplishments of African Americans. The final chapter of this informal history described Harlem, home to over 200,000 blacks and center of what was then called the Negro Renaissance, as a laboratory experiment in racial equality.
After a successful career with the NAACP, Johnson returned to teaching, joining the faculty of Fisk University in Nashville as professor of creative literature. While at Fisk, he produced his autobiography, Along This Way, in which he concluded that the Negro race must continue to advance because "if the Negro is made to fail, America fails with him." Johnson also denied that African Americans would embrace communism to solve the problems of prejudice and discrimination, as many whites feared. In his mind, blacks were too sensible to adopt a creed that would separate them even more from mainstream America.
A year after the publication of the story of his life, Johnson published Negro Americans, What Now?, a series of his lectures addressed especially to young blacks, in which he outlines possible responses to the problem of racism. Rejecting colonization, revolution, and isolation, Johnson declared that "the most logical, the most feasible, and the most worthwhile choice for us is to follow the course that leads to our becoming an integral part of the nation, with the same rights and guarantees that are accorded to other citizens, and on the same terms." This collection was Johnson's last book.
Johnson married Grace Nail on 1910 while he was a United States Consul in Nicaragua. They had met several years earlier in New York when Johnson was working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson became an accomplished artist in pastels and collaborated with her husbad on a screenwriting project. Shown here is a letter from Mrs. Johnson to Augusta Baker, a long-time friend.
The University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library houses the Augusta Baker Collection of African-American Children's Literature and Folklore.