Eulalie Spence
June 11, 1894 – March 7, 1981

Eulalie Spence was a Black playwright, teacher, director, and actress who immigrated to New York City from the British West Indies. She was an influential member of the Harlem Renaissance, writing fourteen plays, at least five of which were published during her lifetime. Spence, who described herself as a “folk dramatist” who made plays for fun and entertainment, was considered one of the most experienced female playwrights of the early 20th century, and received arguably more recognition than other Black playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance period. She presented several plays with W.E.B. Du Bois’ Krigwa Players, and was also an early mentor to theatrical producer Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater. Perhaps most notably, she became the first Black woman to be produced on Broadway in 1927 after a one night bill of her play The Fool’s Errand.

 

Early Life & Education

Spence was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies on June 11, 1894, to Robert and Eno Lake Spence, the oldest of seven girls. She spent her formative years on her father’s sugar plantation. The plantation was destroyed by a hurricane, and she moved to New York City with her family in 1902, living in Harlem before eventually settling in Brooklyn. Because of her father’s difficulty in finding steady employment, Spence and her family lived in meager circumstances.

Spence overcame her impoverished childhood and managed to obtain an exceptional education. She graduated from Wadleigh High School and the New York Training School for Teachers. In 1924 she was a student at the National Ethiopian Art Theatre School, which was dedicated to the training and employment of Black actors. She received a B.A. in 1937 from New York University and an M.A. in speech in 1939 from Columbia University, where she studied under the great Hatcher Hughes.

 

Writing Career

W. E. B. Du Bois, founder and editor of The Crisis, the monthly journal of the N.A.A.C.P., surmised that Black Drama must be built from scratch, by Blacks for a Black theater. In 1926, he founded Krigwa (Crisis Guild of Writers and Artists). Krigwa sponsored a yearly literary contest that included a playwrighting competition and fostered a theater company, the Krigwa Players, which rehearsed and performed at the 135th St. branch of the New York Public Library. Spence finished second in the 1926 Krigwa playwrighting contest for her one act play Foreign Mail. She went on to win four additional cash prizes from various other literary magazines for her plays Her, The Hunch, and The Starter.

The plays of Eulalie Spence helped to make a name for the Krigwa Players amongst both Black and white critics, however Spence and Du Bois did not see eye to eye, artistically or politically. Tensions between the two came to a head in 1927 when Spence’s play The Fool’s Errand competed in the Fifth Annual International Little Theatre Tournament. Spence was declared one of the winners, her play was published by Samuel French and The Krigwa Players were awarded a $200.00 cash prize (nearly $3,000 today). Du Bois took the $200.00 prize money and used it to reimburse production expenses and paid neither the actors nor Spence. The Krigwa Players disbanded as a result.

 

The Whipping

Spence’s only three-act play was her last, The Whipping, adapted from a novel written by Roy Flannagan. Spence crossed racial barriers when she approached the white author to secure publishing rights, and by hiring a white agent, Audrey Wood, who also represented Tennessee Williams. Spence cast Queenie Smith, a popular Broadway actress in the 1920s, in the lead role for the play, which was scheduled to open at the Empress Theatre in Danbury, Connecticut in 1933. The production was canceled without explanation four days before it was to open, and a disheartened Spence optioned the screenplay to Paramount Pictures for $5,000.00 (the equivalent of nearly $96,000 today). Shortly there after, the screenplay was filmed as Ready for Love, a 1934 film starring Ida Lupino and Richard Arlen. However, the studio refused to credit Spence as the author — a fact which she herself did not acknowledge until a public interview in 1973.

 

Mentorship of Joe Papp

Spence began teaching in the New York public school system in 1918. She spent over thirty years teaching elocution, English, and dramatics at the Eastern District High School in Brooklyn, where one of her most notable students was a young Joseph Papp. Spence was a progressive thinker who challenged her students to discuss social norms. Teaching in a predominantly white classroom, she encouraged her students to think about race and gender in the literature they studied, something that was almost unheard of prior to the 1960s. Her methods clearly had a tremendous affect on Papp, who later called Spence “the most influential force in his life.” He continued to speak about her in reverential terms well into his later life. Papp credited Spence with “scrubbing his tongue” of its Brooklyn accent and eliminating his “gutter speech” by teaching him grammar and proper enunciation. She brought professional actors to the class and gave her students poetry and plays to read outside of school. Papp would later note their particular relationship stating;

“She was interested in me. She made me feel good about myself. She took me under her wing… And she was interested in an area that I seemed to find interesting: language.” 

What’s interesting is that while Papp never forgot the impact Spence made on his life and career, he was entirely unaware of her life as a professional playwright, only learning about her theatrical work years later at a museum exhibit.

 

Death & Legacy

Eulalie Spence died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on March 7, 1981, at the age of 86. She had been living at the home of her niece, Patricia Hart, and died at the Warner Hospital. Hart occasionally corresponded with writers inquiring about her aunt, providing photos and additional biographical information. Spence’s obituary did not even mention her career as a playwright, saying only that she was a retired schoolteacher.

Spence has been overshadowed by the counterparts of her day such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson. While her name has been revisited on occasion in the twenty-first century by theatre historians, her powerful legacy and rightful place in theatrical history has become all but forgotten.

 

 

 

Marita Bonner
June 16, 1899 – December 7, 1971

Marita Odette Bonner (Occomy) was an African American writer, essayist, and playwright associated with the Harlem Renaissance Era. Other names she went by were Marita Occomy, Marita Odette Bonner, Marita Odette Bonner Occomy, Marita Bonner Occomy, and Joseph Maree Andrew. Bonner is perhaps most noteworthy for extending the cultural reach of the Harlem Renaissance to Washington D.C., and Chicago — as she herself was never a resident of Harlem. She published three plays, three essays, and seventeen short stories during her lifetime.

 

Early Life & Education

Marita Bonner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Joseph and Anne Noel Bonner. Bonner was one of four children, brought up in Brookline — a middle-class community in Massachusetts. She attended Brookline High School, where she contributed to the school literary magazine, The Sagamore. She excelled in German and Musical Composition, and was also an accomplished pianist. After graduating high school, she enrolled in Radcliffe College in 1918. During her four years  of study, Bonner was forced to commute to school from home, as African-American students were not permitted to board on campus. She excelled both academically and socially at Radcliffe — majoring in English and Comparative Literature, while continuing to study German and Composition.

Two years after completing her studies, Bonner took on a position at Armstrong High School in Washington, D.C. — where she taught until 1930, during which time her mother and father both passed away unexpectedly. While in Washington, Bonner became closely associated with poet, playwright and composer Georgia Douglas Johnson. Johnson’s “S Street Salon” was an important meeting place for many of the writers and artists involved in what was being called the “New Negro Renaissance”.

 

Writing Career

Throughout her career, Bonner served as a frequent contributor to The Crisis (the magazine of the NAACP) and Opportunity (the official publication of the National Urban League). She wrote three plays — The Pot Maker (1927), The Purple Flower – A Play (1928) and Exit, an Illusion (1929) — the most famous being The Purple Flower, which portrays black liberation. Many of Bonner’s written work dealt with poverty, poor housing, and colorism in the black communities. Bonner is one of the many frequently unrecognized black female writers of the Harlem Renaissance who resisted the universalizing, essentialist tendencies by focusing on atypical women rather than on an archetypal man. She regularly explored themes of poverty, familial relations, urban living, colorism, feminism, and racism in her works. Bonner was wholly opposed to generalizations of black experience, and wrote about several differing black experiences in her short stories and plays. She is thus remembered as an advocate for intersectionality and a documentarian of multicultural urban life.

In 1930, Bonner married William Almy Occomy — the couple then moved to Chicago, where Bonner’s writing career took off. After 1941, Bonner gave up publishing her works and devoted her time to her family, including three children. She began teaching again in the 1940s and finally retired in 1963.

 

The Purple Flower

The Purple Flower is a one-act play widely considered to be Bonner’s masterpiece. Not set in any specific place or time, the piece utilizes hyper-theatrical themes to paint a chilling allegory for racial injustice in the United States. The play’s text was well received, and won Bonner first prize in the 1927 Crisis Magazine Literary Awards. The play is credited as the first known experimental work by an American woman of color — foreshadowing avant-garde playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy and María Irene Fornés of the Off-Off Broadway movement in the 1960s.

A masterful mixing “biblical imagery and political allegory” the play seemed to “disrupt the thin skin of civilization.” The cast includes two sets of characters — “the Us’s”, who represent African Americans — and the White Devils. The White Devils live on the hill, located “Somewhere,” atop of which grows “the purple Flower-of-Life-at-Its-Fullest”. The stage is divided into two levels, separated by a thin board that Bonner calls the “thin-skin-of-civilization.” The Us’s occupy the upper level, which holds the dialogue and main action. The lower level is occupied by the White Devils, who have no dialogue but dance around and mimic the action on the upper level. The individual characters among the Us’s represent a variety of attitudes of the oppressed.

The Purple Flower was never produced during Bonner’s lifetime.

 

Influence on the Harlem Renaissance

Bonner’s career had a significant impact on the period, as her writings addressed the struggles of people who lived outside of Harlem. Her greatest involvement in the movement was her emphasis on claiming a proud racial and gender identity. She argued against sexism and racism and encouraged other black women to join her quest for understanding, knowledge, and truth as a means to combat the oppression of race and gender. She also encouraged African Americans to use the weapons of knowledge, teaching, and writing to overcome inequalities. Unlike most Renaissance writers, she focused her writings on issues in and around the city of Chicago. Several of Bonner’s short stories addressed the barriers that African-American women faced when they attempted to follow the Harlem Renaissance’s call for self-improvement through education and issues surrounding discrimination, religion, family, and poverty.

Bonner’s works focused on the historical specificity of her time and place. In “On Being Young — A Woman — And Colored”, Bonner explores the complex layered identity of black womanhood, discussing the difficulties that come with belonging to two distinct marginalized classes. She describes it as a “group within a group”, and discusses the frustrations that come with expressing anger not only as a woman, but as a black woman – she is doubly expected to express her anger with her own oppression “gently and quietly”, once from white society and once more from black male society. She is one of many writers of the era whose efforts to discuss intersectionality were groundbreaking, but have since been dismissed, forgotten, and largely eradicated from modern literary and theatrical canon.

 

Death & Legacy

Bonner died tragically from smoke inhalation during an apartment fire on December 7th, 1971. Her daughter, Joyce, later found two unpublished stories her mother had written. She arranged to have all her mother’s collected works published in one volume.

Critical exploration of Bonner’s life and work has noticeably diminished in the twenty-first century, having been at its peak in the late 1980s. The Purple Flower made it’s world premiere at The Factory Theatre in Boston in 2014 — 87 years after it was written. The production received rave reviews and inspired a surge of performances on college campuses across the country — including a 2018 production a the Yale School of Drama.

 

 

 

Angelina Weld Grimké
June 16, 1880 – December 7, 1958

Angelina Weld Grimké was a poet, dramatist, journalist, teacher, essayist, radical feminist and lesbian icon. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1880, she was raised in a biracial family with a considerable history of social activism. She is widely considered to be the first woman of color to have a play professionally produced in the United States. Since her death, Grimké has been venerated as a foremother of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke acknowledged her role as a significant transitional figure, calling her “a pioneer and path-breaker from whom the artistic vanguard inherited fine and dearly bought achievements.”

 

Early Life & Education

Angelina Weld Grimké was born on February 27th, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father Archibald Grimké was a prominent African-American lawyer, while her mother Sarah Stanley was white and a successful writer. Stanley’s family was scandalized by the marriage, and the weight of their disapproval ultimately proved to be too much for the young couple. In 1883 Stanley left her husband and took young Grimké with her to live in the midwest. Four years later in 1887, Grimké was sent back to live with her father, and her contact with her mother became extremely limited. Sarah Stanley Grimké committed suicide several years later.

Growing up with her father in Massachusetts,  Grimké was educated at some of the best private schools the state had to offer.  Inspired by her late mother’s letters at the age of thirteen, Grimké began writing poetry. Her first poem The Grave in the Corner, was published in 1893 in the Norfolk County Gazette. She continued to publish her poetry throughout high school. Upon graduating she enrolled in the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics (which later became a part of Wellesley College) supplementing her education with classes at Harvard University. In 1902, after completing her studies, she and her father moved to Washington, D.C to be closer to Archibald’s brother, Francis.

 

The Grimké Family

The Grimké name carries a long legacy of advocacy for racial justice. Archibald Grimké was an African-American lawyer, intellectual, journalist, diplomat and community leader in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Archibald was born into slavery near Charleston, South Carolina, in 1849. He was child of Nancy Weston (an enslaved woman) and Henry W. Grimké (her white owner). After obtaining his freedom, he enrolled in college, graduating from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. He was an activist for the rights of Black Americans, serving as a co-founder and National Vice-President of the NAACP. His younger brother Francis James Grimké was a Presbyterian Minister and graduate of Princeton. Francis was regarded for more than half a century as one of the leading African-American clergy of the era, and was also a prominent activist in his own right.

Angelina’s paternal great aunt (and namesake) Angelina Emily Grimké was an abolitionist, political activist, women’s rights advocate, and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. She and her sister Sarah Moore Grimké were the only white Southern women to become abolitionists. Together they traveled the abolitionist lecture circuit recounting their firsthand experiences with slavery on their family’s plantation. In February 1868 the sisters came across an article about Lincoln University, praising the academic prowess of a student named Grimké, who came to the university “just out of slavery”. Stunned, the sisters investigated, and found that Archibald and his siblings were her brother’s children. She and Sarah welcomed the boys and their mother as members of their family, and began financing the boys educations.

The Grimké Family legacy of radical social activism had a deep impact on Angelina’s writing career. If you wish to learn more about the Grimké family, please refer to to Mark Perry’s biography Life Up Thy Voice (which can be purchased here).

 

 

Writing Career

Grimké worked as a teacher in Washington D.C for twenty-eight years. She first taught at Armstrong Manual Training School in both the physical education and English departments. It was during this time that she began to write. In 1907 she moved to a teaching position at the storied M Street High School (later renamed Dunbar High School) for Black students, renowned for its academic excellence, high-quality faculty, and progressive ideology. Grimké taught at the school for twelve years — during this time one of her pupils was the future poet and playwright May Miller.

While living in D.C Grimké published a large output of essays, short stories, and poems. Her works appeared in esteemed publications including The Atalntic, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Crisis, and Opportunity (among others). Her works were also collected in various anthologies of the Harlem Renaissance, including Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923, edited by Robert Thomas Kerlin), The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925, edited by Alain Locke), Caroling Dusk (1927, edited by Countee Cullen), and The Poetry of the Negro (1949, edited by Langston Hughes). These accomplishments aside, her greatest career success came in 1916 with her first full length drama, Rachel

 

Rachel (Blessed Are the Barren)

With the financial stability of her teaching career, Grimké began to focus on her writing. She garnered critical acclaim for her poetry, much of which consisted of tributes to great African Americans, grief elegies, observances of nature’s beauty, and semi-veiled Queer love poems. Lynching was another common theme in Grimké’s work as she began to employ her pen to affect change. She was prolific and, though largely overlooked today, helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance before Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes became household names.

The NAACP put out a call for plays by Black authors as vehicle to rally support against the infamous film The Birth of Nation. Grimké answered that call with her groundbreaking three-act drama, Rachel (originally entitled Blessed Are the Barren). The plot concerns the humble Loving family — the matriarch, Rachel Loving loves children and longs to be a mother, but after seeing the devastating effects racism has had on the children she cares for, and learning that her father and brother were lynched (her mother had kept the cause of their deaths secret), begins to grapple with the devastating realities that accompany raising black children. 

Rachel is a lost landmark of American theatre. Regarded as the first play by an African American woman to ever be produced professionally, the play saw it’s first production in 1916 at the Miner Normal School, a teachers college for African Americans founded by abolitionist Myrtilla Miner. With a cast of local, African American thespians, the NAACP touted the production as “The first attempt to use the stage for propaganda in order to enlighten the American people relative to the lamentable condition of the millions of Colored citizens in this free republic.” The production was a success, and was produced again the following year at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.

Rachel would receive further attention, garnering critical acclaim after it was published as a book in 1920. Alain Locke commented that Rachel was “the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors.” The script has been reprinted multiple times over the past century — a scan of the first edition can be accessed online for free here. Rachel made it’s UK debut to critical acclaim in 2014 at the award winning Off-WestEnd, Finborough Theatre — a British company celebrated for their “rarely seen, rediscovered 19th and 20th century plays.” 

 

Death & Posthumous Queer Legacy

Grimké retired from teaching in 1928. For the next two years she cared for her father during his final illness. After his death in 1930, Grimké ceased writing and moved to New York City. Her time in New York is somewhat of a mystery — she lived in seclusion, overwhelmed with the seemingly impenetrable barriers towards racial, gender, and sexual equality. She died in 1958 at the age of seventy-eight.

Following her death, her work published posthumously revealed an additional layer of her identity: her sexual orientation. While her writings published in her lifetime alluded to lesbian eroticism, those published following her death confirmed her Queer identity. The Dictionary of Literary Biography: African-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance states: “In several poems and in her diaries Grimké expressed the frustration that her lesbianism created; thwarted longing is a theme in several poems.” Many of these unpublished poems are explicitly lesbian, implying that she lived a life of suppression, “both personal and creative.”

It is believed Grimké was in a lengthy adolescent relationship with playwright Mary P. Burill. In 1903, Grimké and her father had a falling out when she told him that she was in love. Archibald Grimké responded with an ultimatum demanding that she choose between her lover and himself. Grimké family biographer Mark Perry speculates that this “lover” was a woman, and that Archibald may have already been aware of his daughter’s sexual identity. Burill later entered a life-long partnership with the renowned academic Lucy Diggs Slowe — Grimké passed away having had no known romantic partners during her adult life.

Over the course of the past five decades Grimké’s unpublished writings have been championed by Historians and Queer Theorists, venerating her to the status of  “lesbian icon”. This past February, NewNowNext published a Black History Month article entitled: “Harlem Renaissance at 100: Angelina Weld Grimké, Lesbian Poet Laureate.”

 

 

 

William Alexander Brown

William Alexander Brown was an American playwright, actor, and theatrical producer. Originally from the British West Indies, he moved to New York City where he founded The African Grove Theater in downtown Manhattan, the nation’s first commercially successful all-Black theatre company. Brown is widely considered by historians as America’s first known Black playwright.

 

Biography

Not much is known about Brown’s early life, including his date of birth. Born in the West Indies, he spent much of his early and young-adult life at sea, working as a steward. In 1815 he retired from his career as a steward on a Liverpool liner and purchased a house in New York City on the north side of Thompson Street. He noticed the lack of entertainment centers for free urban Blacks, and in 1821 he decided to open up an establishment in the back yard of his home that he called the African Grove. The “lavish affairs” he hosted included brandy and gin-toddies, wine-negus, porter and strong ale, accompanied with cakes and meats. In addition to offering food and drinks he encouraged his patrons to participate in the reading of poetry and performing dramatic interludes. One of his frequently invited guests was James Hewlett, a fellow retired steward and theater enthusiast. Inspired by Hewlett’s encouragement, Brown acquired a two-story building on the corner of Mercer and Bleeker Street. He converted the second floor into a 300-seat theatre and named it the The African Grove Theatre.

 

The African Grove Theatre

For some years, the African Company— the repertory players of the African Grove — played classics and many other plays with an entirely Black cast and crew for (mostly) Black audiences. This was the first commercially successful Black theater in the history of New York City. At the height of their success, Brown had to build an extra level of seats in the theater just to accommodate the white audiences that also wished to see their performances.

The most popular plays at The African Grove were Shakespeare’s Richard III and Othello. The actors took creative liberties with the play texts and added songs and dance interludes to the original material. One critic described an 1821 production as follows:

“…Negroes resolved to get up a play, and used the upper apartments of the African Grove for a performance of Richard III. A dapper, wooly haired waiter at the City Hotel personated the royal Plantagenet in robes made up from discarded merino curtains of the ballroom. Owing to the smallness of the company King Henry and the Dutchess were played by one person. (Odell, George. National Advocate, 21 September, 1821)

 

The Drama King of Shotaway

In 1923 The African Grove Theatre made history when they produced Brown’s play The Drama of King Shotaway, founded on Facts taken from the Insurrection of the Caravs on the Island of St. Vincent, written from Experience by Mr. Brown (1823) — the first known play by a Black playwright in the United States. The play was based on the life of Joseph Chatoyer (Satuye), a Garifuna chief who led a revolt of Black Carib people on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent against the British colonists in 1795. It has been theorized that Brown may have drawn inspiration for the play from his own first hand experience, seeing as Brown’s career at sea coincided with the Carib Wars and the transatlantic slave trade. Unfortunately, little else is known about the play as there are no existent copies of the text.

 

Racism & Backlash

“The African Grove Theatre and Company had to be mobile when they started doing plays because the police were constantly raiding their performances and pressuring them to stop performing, due to the rowdiness of the white members of the audience. William Over states that the whites had initially found it curious and amusing that a company of Black actors was attempting to do Shakespeare, but that they later became very hostile. The African Theatre attempted to remedy the situation by creating a partitioned area for whites at the back of the theatre, but the hostile whites continued to create disturbances which eventually closed the theater.” -Jonathan Dewberry

Brown’s theater proved to be highly successful and threatening to neighboring theaters, particularly when he opened up a theater space next door to the well-established Park Theater. Shortly after, the police shut down the theater after complaints from Stephen Price (the owner of the Park Theater) and white theater goers.  Brown continued performing outdoors illegally, but these finals attempts proved to be in vain. The last recorded performance of the African Theatre occurred on Mercer and Houston Street in January 1824.

 

Mentorship of Ira Aldridge

Shortly before the tragic end of The African Grove Theatre, a young actor named Ira Aldridge joined the repertory company. Under the mentorship of Brown he was trained in the works of William Shakespeare. Confronted with the persistent discrimination which Black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England in 1824. There he would go on to have a legendary stage career, becoming one of the most celebrated Shakespearian actors of the nineteenth century.

Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was especially popular in Prussia and Russia, where he received top honors from heads of state. At the time of his sudden death, while on tour in Poland, he was arranging a triumphant return to America, with a planned 100-show tour to the United States.

 

Death &  Legacy

Brown went bankrupt after the forced shutdown of The African Grove Theatre. There is little information about his later life, but he is believed to have passed away in 1884. It was not until after the American Civil War that all-Black theatre companies began to emerge again.

Brown established the first US theater that catered to Black audiences in the way that only white audiences had been catered to previously. It was one of the first spaces that gave free Black citizens a sense of inclusion, as well as the ability to immerse themselves in theatrical culture and see a reflection of themselves in works written by Black playwrights and performed by Black actors.

Brown’s life has been immortalized by playwright Carlyle Brown’s 1994 drama The African Company Presents Richard III. The play has been performed throughout the United States, and was published by Dramatist Play Service — it can be purchased here.

In 2017, the Daytime talk-show The View did a brief segment on Brown and The African Grove Theatre for Black History Month. The segment can be viewed here, or by clicking the image below.

 

 

 

Georgia Douglas Johnson
(September 10, 1877 – May 15, 1966) 

Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp Johnson, better known as Georgia Douglas Johnson (September 10, 1877 – May 15, 1966), was a Black poet, playwright, cultural commentator, musician, and activist. A trailblazer in every sense of the word, Douglas was the most prolific playwright, and the most widely published woman poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Over the course of her career she wrote 200 poems (published in four volumes), 28 plays, and 31 short stories.In addition to her astounding literary output, Douglas is remembered as the founder of the famous S Street Salon in Washington, D.C.  one of the most celebrated literary salons of the 20th Century  and for serving under President Calvin Coolidge as the Commissioner of Conciliation in the Department of Labor.  Johnson’s literary success made her the first Black woman to get national notice for her poetry since Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and made her arguably the most famous Black woman writer in the United States until the rise of Alice Walker.

 

Early Life & Education

Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born on September 10, 1877, in Atlanta, Georgia to Laura (née Douglas) and George Camp. (In an autobiographical sketch Johnson recalled her first school days were in Rome, Georgia before moving to Atlanta with her mother). Her mother was of mixed African-American and Indigenous American heritage, while her father was of mixed African-American and European heritage.Douglas received her primary school education in Atlanta, where she excelled in music, reading, recitation, and physical education. It was during this time that she developed a lifelong love of music that she expressed in her plays, which make distinct use of sacred music. In 1893 she graduated from Atlanta University (the HBCU known today as Clark Atlanta University) at just 16 years old. She then embarked on a teaching career in both Atlanta and Marietta, Georgia. In 1902 she left teaching  to pursue her love of music, studying composition at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio (she would continue to compose original music until 1959). She returned to Atlanta and served briefly as a school principal, and in 1903 she married Henry Lincoln Johnson, a prominent Black attorney and Republican politician. The couple had two sons.

The Johnson family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1910, as Henry was appointed as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, a political patronage position under Republican President William Howard Taft. The Recorder of Deeds was at the time “regarded as the premier political patronage position reserved for Black Americans.” While the city had an active cultural life among the elite people of color, it was far from the Harlem literary center of New York, to which Douglas was attracted. Douglas’s marital life was at odds with her artistic ambitions, as her husband was not supportive of her writing — insisting that she devote more time to becoming a “homemaker”, rather than publishing poetry. Nevertheless, in 1916 The Crisis (the official journal of the NAACP) began regularly printing Johnson’s poetry, and two book-length collections of her verse soon followed: The Heart of a Woman (1918), and Bronze (1922).

 

Poetry & Politics

Douglas had already begun to submit poems to newspapers and small magazines when she lived in Atlanta. While her first poem was published in 1905 in the literary journal The Voice of the Negro, her first full-length collection of poems was not published until 1916. The poems in her first collection, The Heart of a Woman, are largely apolitical; Johnson wrote them under the influence of prominent African-American critic William Stanley Braithwaite, who encouraged his peers to aim for “refinement and lyricism” rather than topical concerns. Braithwaite also wrote the introduction to the collection and praised them for these qualities:“The poems in this book are intensely feminine and for me this means more than anything else that they are deeply human.” 

By contrast, the poems in Bronze are explicitly focused on issues of gender and racial justice. Johnson herself was self-conscious about this change in emphasis, but felt she had a responsibility as the mother of “Black children born into the world’s displeasure.” In keeping with Johnson’s active participation in the Congregationalist Church, many of the poems in Bronze have an optimistic tone — communicating her faith, and her belief that racial justice is possible. During the 1920s, Douglas Johnson traveled extensively to give poetry readings, serving as a beacon of hope in her community.

Johnson’s husband Henry Lincoln died unexpectedly in 1925, forcing her to become the family’s primary wage earner. She struggled initially, taking on menial clerical work — but as a gesture to her late husband’s loyalty and political service, Republican President Calvin Coolidge appointed Johnson as the Commissioner of Conciliation in the United States Department of Labor— a groundbreaking appointment for a Black woman. She held this position for nine years, investigating the hazardous working conditions that many low-income Americans endured in the early 20th century. She was relieved of her duties in 1934, during the regime change of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her time at the DOL provided her with the financial stability to focus on her writing, and informed the political nature of much of her work. She went on to work in DC Public schools, and sold articles to newspapers as a freelancer, earning enough to send both her sons to college (her son Peter was a graduate of Dartmouth and Howard Medical School, while her son Henry Lincoln, Jr. was a graduate of Bowdoin College and Howard Law School).

 

Anti-lynching Activism 

Although Johnson spoke out against race inequity as a whole, she is perhaps most remembered as a key advocate in the anti-lynching movement, as well as a pioneering member of the lynching drama tradition. Her activism was primarily expressed through her plays, first appearing in the play Sunday Morning in the South in 1925. Johnson was a member of the Writers League Against Lynching, which included Countée Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Alain Locke. The organization sought a federal anti-lynching bill.

Johnson refused to give her plays happy endings since she did not feel it was a realistic outcome, as a result, she had difficulty getting her plays published. However, her anti-lynching activism was immortalized through her poem The Ordeal, which was published in Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation. The outspokenness of her plays is sometimes credited with her obscurity as a playwright, as racial violence was considered a taboo subject.

 

Plays

Johnson was a well-known, and well respected figure in the National Black Theatre Movement. Arguably the greatest cultural ambassador of the Harlem Renaissance, she assembled and inspired the group of artists intellectuals who generated the next generation of Black theatre artists and educators. In total, Johnson wrote 28 plays, only eleven of which exist today. These eleven titles include, A Sunday Morning in the South (1925), Blue Blood (1926), Paupaulekejo (1926), Plumes (1927), Safe (c. 1929), Blue-Eyed Black Boy (c. 1930), Starting Point (1930s), William and Ellen Craft (1935), Frederick Douglass (1935), And Yet They Paused (1938), and A Bill to Be Passed (1938).In 1926, Johnson’s play Blue Blood won honorable mention in The Opportunity drama contest. Her play Plumes won the competition the following year in 1927. Plumes is a folk drama that relates the dilemma of Charity, the main character, whose baby daughter is dying. She has saved up money for the doctor, but she and her confidante – Tilde – don’t believe the medical care would be successful. She has in mind an extravagant funeral for her daughter instead – with “plumes, hacks, and other fancy trimmings.” Before Charity can make a decision, her daughter dies. Plumes was produced by the Harlem Experimental Theatre between 1928 and 1931.

All of Johnson’s plays were radical, interrogating subjects like the inadequacy of the American healthcare system, the lack of rights and resources for Black veterans, the economic disparities tethered to race, and interracial marriage. At the end of her life, she complied a formal catalogue of her writings. She divided the 28 plays  she wrote into four groups: “Primitive Life Plays”, “Plays of Average Negro Life”, “Lynching Plays” and “Radio Plays”. The first section of her plays, “Primitive Life Plays”, features Blue Blood and Plumes, which were both published and produced during Johnson’s lifetime. Johnson was one of the only women whose work was published in Alain Locke’s anthology Plays of Negro Life: A Source-Book of Native American Drama. Although most of her plays are lost, the typescripts for eleven of her plays exist in collections at multiple academic institutions. Dr. Akasha Gloria Hull is credited with the rediscovery of many of Johnson’s plays. In her book Color, Sex, and Poetry, Hull argues that Johnson’s work needs to be reclaimed as an exceedingly distinguished product of the Harlem Renaissance.

 

Music & Weekly Newspaper Column

According to Johnson’s Catalogue, she produced at least two dozen “written and copyrighted” songs, including a “Georgia State College School Song” (for the future Savannah State University), and she collaborated with the classical singer/composer Lillian Evanti on several published pieces. Much of Johnson’s music is now archived in The Georgia Douglas Johnson Collection, which appears in Small Collections in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University.In addition to her poetry, playwriting, prose writing, and work with the DOL, Johnson wrote a nationally syndicated Newspaper Column entitled “Homely Philosophy” from 1926 – 1932. The column was published in 20 different newspapers, including The New York News, The Chicago Defender, The Philadelphia Tribune, and The Pittsburgh Courier. Her column achieved wide-spread popularity, and helped many members of the Black community cope with the realities of the Great Depression.

 

The S Street Salon

Shortly after her husband’s death, Johnson transformed her house at 1461 South Street NW into “The S Street Salon”, which would become one of the most famous literary salons of the 20th century. S Street was a place where Black artists and intellectuals like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer, Richard Bruce Nugent, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Eulalie Spence would come together for readings, workshops, and discussions. The S Street Salon helped to nurture and sustain creativity by providing a place for Black artists to meet, socialize, discuss their work, and exchange ideas. According to Scholar Akasha Gloria Hull, Johnson’s role in creating a place for Black artists to nurture their creativity made the movement a national one because she worked outside of Harlem and therefore made a trust for intercity connections. Dr. Elizabeth McHenry describes Johnson in her book Forgotten Readers as

“A woman of tremendous energy, much of which she channeled into her effort to create for the writers who gathered in her home on Saturday nights an atmosphere that was both intellectually stimulating and properly supportive.”

Johnson called her home the “Half Way House” for friends traveling, and a place where they “could freely discuss politics and personal opinions” and where those with no money and no place to stay would be welcome. While Black men were allowed to attend her weekly meetings, they mostly consisted of Black women, many of whom she personally mentored. These women included the likes of Angelina Weld GrimkeMarita Bonner, May Miller, Mary Burrill, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Zora Neale Hurston. They would later become known as the “Saturday Nighters.” Johnson was especially close to Miller and Grimké, providing extra care and support in nurturing their creative voices. The Salon was known to have discussions on issues such as lynching, women’s rights, and the problems facing Black families. Johnson continued this tradition for 40 years.

 

Later Life, Death, & Legacy

In 1962, Georgia Douglas Johnson published her fourth and final volume of poetry, Share My World. The collection’s titular poem “Your World” describes the journey of a person recognizing their potential in the world, using a bird in flight as a metaphor to represent the brave act of “flying” free from the limitations that would keep them from reaching their fullest potential. Johnson wanted her final published work (and her life) to serve as a testament for all the Black women who came after her, stating “Your world is as big as you make it”.In 1965, Atlanta University presented Johnson with an honorary Doctorate of Literature, praising her as:

“A sensitive singer of sad songs; faithful interpreter of the feminine heart of a Negro with its joys, sorrows, limitations and frustrations of racial oppression in a male-dominated world; dreamer of broken dreams who translated her disappointments into such memorable and immortal lines as: “The heart of a woman falls back with the night, / and enters some alien cage of its plight, / and tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars / while it breaks, breaks, breaks, on the sheltering bars …”

Johnson died in Washington, D.C. home on on May 15, 1966. Much of her unpublished work was lost, including many papers that were discarded after her funeral. At the time of her death, her protege the poet and playwright May Miller, sat at her bedside, stroking her face while repeating the words “The poet, Georgia Douglas Johnson”.

Georgia Douglas Johnson remains not only the most prolific poet and playwright of the Harlem Renaissance, but also the most criminally neglected. Her tremendous legacy has become almost entirely lost to history, a mere footnote in the lives of her contemporaries and proteges. Like so many women writers who came before her, Johnson was acclaimed during her life, forgotten after her death, and is now relegated to the margins of literary and theatrical history.