It has been an exciting year taking The Negro in Illinois on the road, whether speaking to historians at the Illinois State Historical Society, or to black senior citizens on Chicago’s South Side. In the coming year, I am happy to announce a paperback edition of the book will be out in the Spring. A paperback issue of my first book The Black Cultural Front has also been released.
As we look back with the turn of the calendar year, I want to highlight several “personal reminiscences” of the poet Fenton Johnson, written while he was on the WPA and never before published. (In a future blogpost, I will write about his other WPA essays). Born in 1888, Johnson was from a family that was among the “old settlers” of black Chicago. His writings are a unique and intimate, if at times critical, portrait of those he called “Negro aristocrats.”
In the decade before the Harlem Renaissance, Fenton Johnson published three books of poetry and founded the magazine Champion to compete with the NAACP’s Crisis. According to editors of the The Negro in Illinois, he was the first to make “a complete break” with 19th century black verse.
“Personal Reminiscences of 8th Regiment Characters: Col. John R. Marshall” was written in two parts, dated July 25, 1940 and August 19, 1940. In Part One, Johnson remembers being invited to his uncle’s house for dinner with Col. John R. Marshall, who was famous as the first African American Colonel, in charge of the all-black 8th Regiment. In Part Two, he tells how Marshall helped him to get his magazine off the ground. These stories spark other memories about Marshall’s rejection of boxer Jack Johnson from the exclusive Appomottox Club, and his part-ownership of the black-owned Binga Bank, where Fenton Johnson worked briefly as publicity director.
A subsequent article, “Eighth Regiment Characters III: Reverdy C. Ransom,” dated 1940, only briefly touches on the Fighting 8th. It is mostly about Reverend Ransom, pastor of the historic Bethel A.M.E. Church, and the first in Chicago to “render the race problem” in his sermons. According to Fenton Johnson, in one of these sermons during the Spring of 1898, Ransom first announced he and Col. Marshall had met with Governor Tanner about forming the Eighth Regiment. The essay mentions the many other institutions Ransom would help establish. Johnson recalls sending his poetry and prose to Ransom, who kindly published them in the A.M.E. Review.
The essay, “Personal Reminiscences of a Few Negro Composers: Will Marion Cook,” dated May 1940, recalls the composer who “dominated” black music at the turn of the century. As Johnson reminds us, Cook met his wife, singer Abbie Mitchell, at the Pekin Theater in Chicago. Johnson was introduced to Cook while a journalist in New York. Cook asked him to work on a song he was writing with fellow composer Joe Jordan, “Why not hook up with us and write the words for us?” Unfortunately, the song never materialized.
Other first-hand recollections of famous African Americans appear in the essay “Chicago Negro Aristocrats,” dated June 18, 1941. “When we speak of Chicago Negro aristocrats,” Johnson writes, “we are reminded of the first of all of them, Mrs. John Jones.” Mary Richardson Jones was the wife of John Jones, a wealthy African American tailor and abolitionist. The one time Johnson met Mrs. Jones was at a dinner held in her honor by his grandmother. Johnson’s portrait is unflattering. He calls her a “stern dictator” whose ideals were of the “lily white type.”