Georgia Douglas Johnson: Harlem Renaissance Writer

Poet, Playwright, Writer, Pioneer of the Black Theatre

Published song with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson

Library of Congress

Georgia Douglas Johnson (Sept.10, 1880–May 14, 1966) was among the women who were Harlem Renaissance figures. She was a poet, playwright, editor, music teacher, school principal, and pioneer in the Black theater movement, who wrote more than 200 poems, 40 plays, 30 songs, and edited 100 books. She challenged both racial and gender barriers to succeed in these areas. Though Johnson never found great success as a playwright or poet during her lifetime, she was influential to generations of noted Black writers and playwrights who came after. Her home was an important meeting place where leading Black thinkers would come to discuss their lives, ideas, and projects, and, indeed, she came to be known as the "Lady Poet of the New Negro Renaissance."

Fast Facts: Georgia Douglas Johnson

  • Known For: Black poet and writer and key Harlem Renaissance figure
  • Also Known As: Georgia Douglas Camp
  • Born: Sept. 10, 1880, in Atlanta. (Some sources list her year of birth as 1877)
  • Parents: Laura Douglas and George Camp
  • Died: May 15, 1966, in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Atlanta University's Normal School (Graduated1896); Oberlin Conservatory, Cleveland College of Music (Studied Music)
  • Published Works: "The Heart of a Woman" (1918), "Bronze" (1922), "An Autumn Love Cycle" (1928), "Share My World" (1962)
  • Awards and Honors: First prize, Literary Contest Sponsored by the National Urban League's African American magazine Opportunity (1927); Honorary doctorate in literature from Atlanta University (1965); Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (Inducted 2010)
  • Spouse: Henry Lincoln Johnson (Sept. 28, 1903–Sept. 10, 1925)
  • Children: Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. (born 1906), Peter Douglas Johnson (born 1907)
  • Notable Quote: “Your world is as big as you make it. / I know, for I used to abide / In the narrowest nest in a corner, / My wings pressing close to my side.”

Early Live

Johnson was born Georgia Douglas Camp in Atlanta to Laura Douglas and George Camp She graduated from the Normal School of Atlanta University in 1896.

Camp taught in Marietta, Georgia, and Atlanta. 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, on Sept. 28, 1903, and took his last name. Thereafter, she was known as Georgia Davis Johnson.

The Salon

Moving to Washington, D.C, in 1909 with her husband and two children, Johnson's home at 1461 S Street Northwest soon became known as Half-Way House, due to her willingness to provide shelter for those in need. The home also eventually became an important gathering place for Black writers and artists, who discussed their ideas and debuted their new works there.

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, Black artists, poets, and playwrights, including Langston HughesCountee CullenAngelina GrimkeW.E.B. DuBoisJames Weldon JohnsonAlice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Burrill, and Anne Spencer, met for weekly cultural gatherings, which came be known as "The S Street Salon" and "Saturday Nighters."

Treva B. Lindsey, a Black feminist cultural critic, historian, and commentator, stated in her 2017 book, "Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C.," that Johnson's home, and in particular the weekly gatherings, represent a much "understudied" community of Black writers, playwrights, and poets, especially Black women, in what was initially called "The New Negro Movement" and eventually, the Harlem Rennaissance:

"With a particular emphasis on the writing of African American women, the S Street Salon evolved into a viable space for African American women writers to workshop their poems, plays, short stories, and novels. Many of the New Negro era literary works produced by African American women participants of the S Street Salon tackled politically significant and contentious issues such as racial and sexual violence and women’s reproductive rights....The S Street Salon was arguably one of the most significant intellectual, political, and cultural communities of the New Negro era."

Johnson's Plays

Johnson's plays were often performed in community venues common to what was called the New Negro theatre: not-for-profit locations including churches, YWCAs, lodges, and 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. The New George Encyclopedia describes some of Johnson's most-noteworthy plays, as well as the fate of her other theater works:

"During the fall of 1926, her play Blue Blood was performed by the Krigwa Players in New York City and was published the following year. In 1927 Plumes, a folk tragedy set in the rural South, won first prize in a literary contest sponsored by the National Urban League's African American magazine Opportunity. Johnson also submitted plays to the Federal Theatre Project, but none were ever produced. Johnson wrote a number of plays dealing with the subject of lynching, including "Blue-eyed Black Boy," "Safe," and "A Sunday Morning in the South."

Most of Johnson's plays were never produced, and some have been lost, but a number have been rehabilitated in a 2006 book by Judith L. Stephens, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, titled, "The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson: From the New Negro Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement." The book by Stephens—considered one of the nation's leading experts on Johnson and her works—contains 12 one-act plays, including two never-before-published scripts found in the Library of Congress. The work is described by the Book Depository, an online book-selling site, as an effort at "(r)ecovering the stage work of one of America's finest black female writers." 

Johnson's Poems

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 and Other Poems," focusing on the experience of a woman. Jessie Redmon Fauset, a Black editor, poet, essayist, novelist, and educator, helped Johnson select the poems for the book. That first collection of poems was important, explains the New Georgia Encyclopedia because it established Johnson:

"....as one of the notable African American woman poets of her time. Built on themes of loneliness, isolation, and the confining aspects of the roles of women, the title poem substitutes the metaphor of 'a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on' for 'the heart of a woman,' which ultimately 'falls back with the night / And enters some alien cage in its plight, / And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars.' "

In her 1922 collection, "Bronze," Johnson responded to early criticism by focusing more on racial experience. Although some critics have praised the richly penned, emotional content, others saw a need for something more than the picture of helplessness presented in such poems as "Smothered Fires," "When I Am Dead," and "Foredoom."

The New Georgia Encylopedia also notes that:

"An Autumn Love Cycle, returns to the feminine themes explored in her first collection. From this collection the poem 'I Want to Die While You Love Me' is the most often anthologized of her work. It was read at her funeral."

Difficult Years

Johnson's husband reluctantly supported her writing career until his death in 1925. In that year, President Calvin 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.

Johnson continued to write, publishing her best-known book, "An Autumn Love Cycle," in 1925, yet she struggled with poverty after her husband died. She wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column from 1926 to 1932. After she lost the Department of Labor job in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, 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. 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 play, "Raisin in the Sun," opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, to critical acclaim.

In 1965, Atlanta University awarded 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.

Death and Legacy

Johnson died on May 15, 1966, in Washington, D.C., shortly after finishing a Catalogue of Writings, mentioning 28 plays. Much of her unpublished work was lost, including many papers that were discarded after her funeral.

But she is not forgotten: Indeed, the famous Salon in Washington, D.C., still exists, though it no longer hosts gatherings of top writers and thinkers. But Douglas's house has been restored. Or, as a Washington Post headline proclaimed in a 2018 article: "A Poet’s Rowhouse in Northwest Washington Has a Renaissance."

Decades after Douglas left the house "there wasn’t much left of its former glory," reporter and editor Kathy Orton wrote in the Post article. "The previous owner had turned it into a group house. Before that, another owner had divided it into flats." But Julie Norton, who bought the house at 15th and S streets in 2009, decided to give it a makeover after a Black man passed by the abode and told her a bit about its history.

The Post article explained:

'That was a great thing,' (Norton later said of the talk). 'It wasn’t like I inadvertently bought a haunted house. It’s the opposite. I bought this house with this really cool vibe.' "

After three renovations, "the house has reclaimed its capacity to host large and small gatherings." The garage is now a carriage house, including a wine corridor. The underground passage holds not just wine bottles, but also, appropriately, books. And so the spirit of Douglas lives on. More than a half-century after her death, her Salon—and her work—are still remembered.

View Article Sources
  1. Lindsey, Treva B. “Saturday Night at the S Street Salon.” Illinois Scholarship Online, University of Illinois Press.

  2. Georgia Douglas Johnson (Ca. 1877-1966).” New Georgia Encyclopedia.

  3. Stephens, Judith L. “The Plays of Georgia Douglas Johnson: From the New Negro Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement.” Bookdepository.com, University of Illinois Press, 7 Mar. 2006.

  4. Orton, Kathy. “A Poet's Rowhouse in Northwest Washington Has a Renaissance.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Apr. 2019.