Mordecai Wyatt Johnson

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Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, serving portions of Thanksgiving turkey to members of his family in 1942.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (January 4, 1891 – September 10, 1976) was an American educator and pastor. He served as the first black president of Howard University, from 1926 until 1960. Johnson has been considered one of the three leading African-American preachers of the early 20th-century, along with Vernon Johns and Howard Thurman.

Johnson was born in Paris, Tennessee, the son of former slaves Reverend Wyatt J. Johnson and Carolyn Freeman. [1]

Johnson received his B.A. from Morehouse College in 1911, and second bachelor of arts degree from the University of Chicago two years later.[1] He studied at several other institutions of higher education, including the Rochester Theological Seminary, Harvard University, Howard University, and the Gammon Theological Seminary.[1]

Early life[edit]

Johnson was born on January 12, 1890, in Paris, Tennessee. His father, Wyatt Johnson, was a preacher and mill worker. His mother was a domestic worker for one of the prominent families in town. He married Anna Ethelyn Gardner on December 25, 1916. They had five children: Carolyn Elizabeth Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Jr., Archer Clement Johnson, William Howard Johnson, and Anna Faith Johnson.


Following a brief stint as secretary of the western region of the Student Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), in 1917 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. He later founded a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

On June 26, 1926, at the age of 36, Johnson was unanimously elected the eleventh President of Howard University, becoming the first African American to serve as the permanent head of that institution.[1] He served until 1960. Prior to his appointment Johnson had served as Professor of Economics and History at Morehouse. He had also served as Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1929, the NAACP awarded Johnson the Spingarn Medal (its highest honor at that time), for Johnson's ability to secure annual federal funds to support the university's financial future.[2] During his tenure, Johnson appointed Charles Hamilton Houston as dean of the law school. Johnson raised millions of dollars for new buildings and for upgrading all of the schools. National honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa, were established on the campus of Howard. During his administration, it was said that Howard had the greatest collection of African American scholars to be found anywhere. Notable scholars at Howard included: Alain Locke, a philosopher and a Rhodes Scholar from Harvard University, Ralph Bunche, professor of political science and later a Nobel Laureate; Charles Drew, who perfected the use of blood plasma; Percy Julian, a noted chemist; and Sterling Brown, professor of English and noted Harlem Renaissance poet.

Enrollment at Howard University increased from 2,000 in 1926 to more than 10,000 in 1960. After 34 years of service and bringing the university into national prominence, Johnson retired from the presidency of Howard University in 1960.

Johnson the Orator[edit]

Johnson was an annual speaker for the Education Night at the National Baptist Convention, a speaker at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, and spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. He traveled 25,000 miles a year throughout the country speaking principally on topics such as racism, segregation, and discrimination.[2] In 1951 he was a member of the American delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that met in London.

Mordecai Wyatt Johnson died on September 10, 1976, at the age of 86, in Washington, D.C.


  • Yenser, Thomas (editor), Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, Brooklyn, New York, 1930-1931-1932 (third edition)