Georgia Douglas Johnson: Harlem Renaissance Writer

Poet, Playwright, Writer, Pioneer of the Black Theatre

Published song with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson
Published song (about 1919) with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson, music by H. T. Burleigh. Courtesy Library of Congress

Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1880 - May 14, 1966) was among the women who were Harlem Renaissance figures. She was a pioneer in the black theatre movement, a prolific writer of more than 28 plays and many poems. She challenged both racial and gender barriers to success as a poet, writer, and playwright.  She was called the "Lady Poet of the New Negro Renaissance."

She is especially known for her four poetry works, The Heart of a Woman (1918), Bronze (1922), AnAutumn Love Cycle (1928), and Share My World (1962)

Background

Georgia Douglas Johnson was born Georgia Douglas Camp in Atlanta, Georgia, into an interracial family. She graduated from the Normal School of Atlanta University in 1893.

Georgia Douglas taught in Marietta and Atlanta Georgia. She left teaching in 1902 to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, intending to become a composer. She returned to teaching in Atlanta, and became an assistant principal.

She married Henry Lincoln Johnson, an attorney and government worker in Atlanta active in the Republican Party.

Writing and Salons

Moving to Washington, DC, in 1909 with her husband and two children, Georgia Douglas Johnson's home was often the site of salons or gatherings of African American writers and artists. She called her home the Half-Way House, and often took in those who had no other place to live.

Georgia Douglas Johnson published her first poems in 1916 in the NAACP's Crisis magazine, and her first book of poetry in 1918, The Heart of a Woman, focusing on the experience of a woman.

Jessie Fauset helped her select the poems for the book. In her 1922 collection, Bronze, she responded to early criticism by focusing more on racial experience.

She wrote more than 200 poems, 40 plays, 30 songs, and edited 100 books by 1930. These were often performed in community venues common to what was called the New Negro theatre: not for profit locations including churches, YWCAs, lodges, schools.

Many of her plays, written in the 1920s, fall into the category of lynching drama. She was writing at a time when organized opposition to lynching was part of social reform, and while lynching was still occurring at a high rate especially in the South. 

Her husband reluctantly supported her writing career until his death in 1925. In that year, President Coolidge appointed Johnson to a position as Commissioner of Conciliation in the Department of Labor, recognizing her late husband's support of the Republican Party. But she needed her writing to help support herself and her children.

Her home was open in the 1920s and early 1930s to the African American artists of the day, including Langston HughesCountee CullenAngelina GrimkeW.E.B. DuBoisJames Weldon JohnsonAlice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Burrill, and Anne Spencer.

Georgia Douglas Johnson continued to write, publishing her best-known book, An Autumn Love Cycle, in 1925. She struggled with poverty after her husband died in 1925. She wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column from 1926-1932.

More Difficult Years

After she lost the Department of Labor job in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, Georgia Douglas Johnson worked as a teacher, librarian, and file clerk in the 1930s and 1940s.

She found it difficult to get published. Her anti-lynching writings of the 1920s and 1930s were mostly not published at the time; some have been lost.

During World War II she published poems and read some on radio shows. In the 1950s Johnson found it difficult to publish poems with a more political message.  She continued writing plays into the era of the Civil Rights movement, though by that time other black women writers were more likely to be noticed and published, including Lorraine Hansberry, whose Raisin in the Sun dates to 1959.

Reflecting her early interest in music, she included music in some of her plays.

In 1965 Atlanta University awarded Georgia Douglas Johnson an honorary doctorate.

She saw to her sons' education; Henry Johnson, jr., completed Bowdoin College and then Howard University law school.

Peter Johnson attended Dartmouth college and Howard University medical school.

Georgia Douglas Johnson died in 1966, shortly after finishing a Catalogue of Writings, mentioning 28 plays.

Much of her unpublished work was lost, including many papers thrown away after her funeral.

In 2006, Judith L. Stephens published a book of Johnson's known plays.

Two of the anti-lynching plays by Georgia Douglas Johnson can be found here, with discussion questions: Antilynching Dramas

Background, Family:

  • Father: George Camp
  • Mother: Laura Jackson Camp
  • born in Atlanta, Georgia; birth year is uncertain, given as early as 1877 and as late as 1886
  • her mixed race heritage (African American on both sides, English on her father's, Native American on her mother's) is a theme that she explores in some of her writings

Education:

  • Atlanta University Normal School (graduated 1893)
  • Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1902)
  • Cleveland College of Music

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Henry Lincoln Johnson (married 1903; lawyer; appointed recorder of deeds, Washington, 1912; Republican National Committeeman from Georgia, 1920-1925)
  • children: Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. (born 1906) and Peter Douglas Johnson (born 1907)