Charles Spurgeon Johnson, one of the leading 20th Century black sociologists, was born in Bristol, Virginia on July 24, 1893. After receiving his B.A. from Virginia Union University in Richmond, he studied sociology with the noted sociologist Robert E. Park at the University of Chicago, Illinois where he earned a Ph.D. in 1917. Initially a friend of historian Carter G. Woodson, he did collaborative work with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History until his relationship with Woodson deteriorated.
Johnson, however, was able to attract research funding from white philanthropic organizations such as the General Education Board, Phelps-Stokes Fund, Rosenwald Fund, and the Rockefeller Foundation which allowed him to study the social condition of Black communities suffering under Jim Crow. That research ensured that Johnson would emerge by the 1920s as the nation’s foremost scholar in the field of Black Sociology.
Surviving and being a witness to the race riots during the Red Summer of 1919, Johnson investigated the causes of the riots and produced an assessment for the Chicago Commission on Race Relations. His research ultimately became The Negro in Chicago, the first of numerous published 20th Century studies of the cause’s urban riots and their consequences. This highly acclaimed study led in 1921 to Dr. Johnson being appointed director of research for the National Urban League. In 1923 Johnson founded its professional magazine, Opportunity, and became its first editor. Opportunity published a wide variety of social science research and popular essays which revealed the impact Jim Crow on the African American community at that time. Johnson was also a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity.
In 1928, Dr. Johnson decided to move to Fisk University to continue his research and to become its first chairman of the newly established Department of Social Sciences. He viewed the move to a black institution as strengthening his scholarly work by enabling him to acquire more white philanthropic research funding. Upon receiving the funding he expected Johnson established the Fisk Institute of Race Relations, first “think tank” at a predominantly black institution. In recognition of his efforts to place Fisk University on the academic map, the institution’s board of trustees, in 1948, appointed him the first black president of Fisk University. Dr. Johnson served in this capacity, did further innovative research, and received many accolades and honors until his death in Nashville, Tennessee on October 27, 1956. He was 63 at the time of his death.