Henry Lincoln Johnson

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This article is about the American attorney and politician, not to be confused with Congressional Medal of Honor winner Henry Johnson (World War I soldier) (1897-1929).
Henry Lincoln Johnson
Henry Lincoln Johnson, Recorder of Deeds in Washington, DC in 1914.jpg
Johnson in 1914 in Washington
Washington DC Recorder of Deeds
In office
Appointed by William Howard Taft
Personal details
Born (1870-07-27)July 27, 1870
Augusta, Georgia
Died September 10, 1925(1925-09-10) (aged 55)
Freedmen's Hospital
Washington, DC
Spouse(s) Georgia Douglas (m. 1903–25)
Children Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr.
Peter Douglas Johnson
Parents Martha Ann
Peter Johnson

Henry Lincoln "Linc" Johnson (July 27, 1870 – September 10, 1925) was an American attorney and politician from the state of Georgia. He is best remembered as one of the most prominent African-American Republicans of the first two decades of the 20th Century and as a leader of the dominant black-and-tan faction of the Republican Party of Georgia. He was appointed by President William Howard Taft as Recorder of the Deeds for the District of Columbia, at the time regarded as the premier political patronage position reserved for black Americans.

Following the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson was again appointed Recorder of the Deeds for the District in June 1921 by Republican President Warren G. Harding, but saw his appointment rejected by the United States Senate, meeting in executive session — an event which garnered newspaper headlines and which marked the finish of Johnson's national political influence.

He died on September 10, 1925 at the Freedmen's Hospital after having a stroke at his home in Washington, DC.


Early years[edit]

Attorney Linc Johnson as a young man.

Henry Lincoln Johnson, known to family and friends as "Linc," was born on July 27, 1870 in Augusta, Georgia to former slaves Martha Ann and Peter Johnson.[1]

Johnson attended Atlanta University and graduated in 1888.[1] He then attended the University of Michigan, from which he obtained a law degree in 1892.[1] After passing the Georgia bar exam he opened a law practice in Atlanta, eventually becoming the attorney for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.[2]

Johnson married fellow Clark Atlanta University graduate Georgia Douglas in 1903.[1] She achieved literary fame as a poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance.[2] Together the couple had two sons, Peter Douglas Johnson and Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr., the latter of whom became an important attorney in his own right.

Black political leader[edit]

During the first years of the 20th Century Johnson emerged as a leading boss in Georgia Republican politics.[3] Johnson's role was that of the chief dispenser of political patronage to black Republicans in the state[4] — a loyal and important component of the Republican Party coalition in the era. Johnson was described by one journalist of the era as a "tall figure with an oratorical turn of phrase and an emphatic style of expression."[5]

Johnson was appointed by President William Howard Taft as Registrar of Deeds for the District of Columbia in 1910, regarded as the premier political patronage job historically earmarked for African-Americans.[6] The family moved from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. in support of Linc Johnson's new position.[7]

Johnson seems to have taken to his new post in Washington, DC, going so far as to opportunistically work behind the scenes for the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 Presidential election, managing to remain in his position until the Wilson administration purged African-Americans from federally appointed positions in 1913.[4] Johnson's hubris was sharply criticized by the black socialist magazine, The Messenger, which savaged Johnson as an example of one of the "sleek, fat, potbellied Negro politicians who have been trafficking for half a century in the sweat and blood and tears of toiling Negro washerwomen, cotton pickers, miners, and factory hands."[8]

It was during the 1916 Presidential election that the Republican Party of Georgia split into two rival factions — a group of African-American-dominated regulars headed by Johnson, commonly known as the "black and tans", and an insurgency of European-Americans commonly known as the "lily whites."[4] Johnson managed to retain control of the party apparatus in the Presidential election year of 1916 and again in 1920, controlling the Georgia delegation to the Republican National Convention in those years and thus retaining control over patronage appointments.[4]

In 1920, Johnson was among those black leaders of the Republican Party to meet in Chicago to establish the Lincoln League — an intra-party pressure group designed to force the national Republican Party to take a firm stand against lynching, Jim Crow law, voter disfranchisement, and other perceived assaults upon the African-American community.[4] Johnson won promises that the Republican Party would take more determined action on these matters if the White House was won in the fall of 1920.[4]

The year 1920 saw Johnson achieve his highest formal political rank when the was elected as Georgia's representative to the Republican National Committee. The selection had not been without controversy, with the candidacy concealed until the last minute before Johnson was elected by the loyal Georgia delegation over his white rival, Roscoe Pickett, 12 votes to 3, with two abstaining.[9] Under the standing rules of the convention it was mandatory that the full convention ratify the selection of each state's delegation, but when the Georgia delegation reported their selection on the floor and the pro forma voice vote was taken, a chorus of voices were raised in opposition to Johnson.[9] Only a two-thirds vote of the convention could set aside the standing rules to overturn the Georgia delegation's selection,[9] but a potential election-year embarrassment of the Republicans in front of black voters was averted when the delegates failed to make an exception, thereby ratifying the choice of Johnson.

Failed nomination of 1920[edit]

Henry Lincoln Johnson as the new "GOP Boss" of Georgia on the front page of the Atlanta Constitution in June 1920.

Johnson's status was further bolstered by the strong results experienced by the Republicans in the Presidential election of 1920, which saw the largest vote for the party in the South in four decades.[10] A brewing factional breach in the Republican Party of Georgia between Johnson's African-American-dominated regulars, the "black and tans," and an insurgency of European-Americans commonly known as the "lily whites" erupted in the aftermath of the election as the two groups battled for influence with the new Republican administration of Warren G. Harding to control federal patronage in the state.[3]

Harding reacted to the factional split between the "black and tans" and the "lily whites" with an attempt to reorganize the Republican Party in Georgia independently of these two feuding groups.[11] In April 1921 five prominent Georgia business leaders were called to the White House by President Harding, with lumber mill owner John Louis Philips asked to conduct an initial survey of Georgia business figures to determine their potential level of support for joining a new, reorganized Georgia Republican Party.[12]

Harding's machination was endorsed by the "lily whites," who saw it as a means of establishing white hegemony even if those chosen to head the reorganization were selected from outside factional ranks.[13] Johnson was another case, however, since as leader of the "black and tans" he had the most to lose from Harding's reorganizational effort. Johnson was ultimately induced to quit the factional battle and to exit Georgia politics through a reappointment to the choice position of Registrar of Deeds for the District of Columbia.[13] He was so appointed in June 1921,[14] thus clearing the way for a handpicked convention of 230 people, predominantly consisting of white business leaders, to reorganize the Georgia Party on July 26, 1921.[13]

Johnson's appointment was taken up by the United States Senate for ratification in November 1921.[14] There Georgia Democratic Senator Tom Watson, a political foe, led a fight against Johnson's confirmation in committee and on the floor of the Senate.[14] Watson charged that the appointment of Johnson was "personally obnoxious to him" for having said in an interview with a black newspaper from Baltimore that Johnson would "rather be in hell without Tom Watson than to be in heaven with him."[14] Watson also charged that Johnson had engaged in financial shenanigans in Atlanta which made him unsuitable for government trust.[14]

Meeting in executive session it was reported that Georgia's other Senator, Democrat Nathaniel Edwin Harris had joined Watson in pronouncing Johnson "personally obnoxious to him,"[14] code words invoking an unwritten rule in the Senate granting de facto veto power to Senators over appointments relating to their states.[15] The vote against Johnson which followed proved to be virtually unanimous, with only one Senator registering his support for Johnson over the objections of the Georgians, it was reported in the contemporary press.[14]

Death and legacy[edit]

After his 1921 confirmation defeat in the Senate, Johnson returned to legal practice in Washington, DC; his place in national politics was thereafter limited. One of Johnson's most famous cases came in 1922, when he was called to defend a young black man charged with sexual assault of a white girl below the age of consent.[16] These extremely serious charges carried a potential penalty of 30 years in prison or execution, not to mention the possibility of extrajudicial lynching.[16]

Following expert cross-examination in the case, Johnson delivered what was called by one observer one of the "most eloquent and forceful" closing arguments ever heard in a District of Columbia court.[16] The jury failed to agree in the case after six hours of deliberation, with seven jurors voting for acquittal; the foreman later commented that the defendant owed his life to Johnson's summation.[17]

Despite his removal from Georgia politics, Johnson was not entirely forgotten in the corridors of power. In September 1923 Johnson was one of a handful of black political leaders invited to Washington, DC for private consultations with President Calvin Coolidge on issues of concern to the African-American community.[5]

Henry Lincoln Johnson died on September 10, 1925 at Freedmen's Hospital after having a stroke at his home in Washington, DC.[1] He was 55 years old at the time of his death. He was buried on September 14, 1925 in National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery.

Shortly after his death, Johnson was eulogized with an editorial in the Pittsburgh Courier, an important black newspaper, which opined:

"To mention the name of Linc Johnson is to speak of politics. He grew up seeking his place at the political table. He sought it unceasingly, without rest or compromise. Politics was the only food he sought with diligence. Of his own personal welfare, he cared little. Of his own personal comforts, he cared, perhaps, not quite enough.... He thought of politics, the power of politics, and nothing so absorbed him as politics. * * *

"There is a place left vacant by his passing. He filled it as he saw his duty, both to himself and to his group.... He was a type unto himself, admired, loved, and hated, depending upon how well he was understood; but through it all, he remained the one and only Henry Lincoln Johnson."[18]


  1. ^ a b c d e "H. L. Johnson Dies: A Republican Leader: Negro National Committeeman Had Won Fights for Seat at Two Conventions," New York Times, Sept. 11, 1925.
  2. ^ a b Herman Mason, Politics, Civil Rights, and Law in Black Atlanta, 1870-1970. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000; pg. 56.
  3. ^ a b Robert E. Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment': President Warren G. Harding's Attempt to Reorganize the Republican Party in Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 4 (Winter 1978), pg. 289.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Donald Lee Grant, The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2001; pg. 336.
  5. ^ a b "Link Johnson in Conference with Coolidge," Pittsburgh Courier, vol. 14, no. 37 (Sept. 29, 1923), pg. 1.
  6. ^ J. Clay Smith, Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; pg. 195.
  7. ^ Carmine D. Palumbo,"Georgia Johnson," New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2003; revised 2013.
  8. ^ The Messenger, quoted in Grant, The Way it was in the South, pg. 336.
  9. ^ a b c George L. Hart (ed.), Official Report of the Proceedings of the Seventeenth Republican National Convention: Held in Chicago, Illinois, June 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12, 1920... New York: The Tenny Press, 1920; pp. 92-93.
  10. ^ Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment,'" pg. 288.
  11. ^ Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment,'" pg. 290.
  12. ^ Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment,'" pp. 290-291.
  13. ^ a b c Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment,'" pg. 291.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g "'Link' Johnson Nomination Rejected by U.S. Senate: Negro is Refused Job as Recorder of Deeds in DC," Atlanta Constitution, vol. 54, no. 164 (Nov. 23, 1921), pg. 1.
  15. ^ "Unwritten 'Obnoxious Rule' Usually Observed in Senate," Wilmington News, vol. 62, no. 136 (July 17, 1956), pg. 4.
  16. ^ a b c Smith, Emancipation, pg. 196.
  17. ^ Smith, Emancipation, pg. 196-97.
  18. ^ "Henry Lincoln Johnson," Pittsburgh Courier, vol. 16, no. 38 (Sept. 19, 1925), pg. 16.


  • The Negro Under Wilson. Washington, DC: Republican National Committee, n.d. [1916?].
  • Letter to W.E.B. DuBois, July 18, 1918, W.E.B. DuBois papers, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Further reading[edit]

  • Donald Lee Grant, The Way it was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. Carroll Publishing Co./Birch Lane Press, 1993; reissued University of Georgia Press, 2001.
  • Robert E. Hauser, "'The Georgia Experiment': President Warren G. Harding's Attempt to Reorganize the Republican Party in Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 4 (Winter 1978), pp. 288-303. In JSTOR
  • Herman Mason, Politics, Civil Rights, and Law in Black Atlanta, 1870-1970. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
  • J.A. Rogers and A.S. Milai, "Facts About the Negro," Pittsburgh Courier, vol. 57, no. 20 (May 15, 1965), pg. 11.
  • J. Clay Smith, Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
  • Morton Sosna, "The South in the Saddle: Racial Politics during the Wilson Years," Wisconsin Magazine of History, vol. 54, no. 1 (Autumn 1970), pp. 30-49. In JSTOR
  • "Georgia GOP Boss for Next Four Years," Atlanta Constitution, vol. 52, no. 364 (June 12, 1920), pg. 4.
  • "Vindication of B.J. Davis: Failure of Case Against the Well Known Odd Fellow: History of the Proceedings," Pittsburgh Courier, vol. 3, no. 2 (Dec. 30, 1911), pg. 1.