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Georgia Douglas Johnson

Georgia Douglas Johnson
September 10, 1877 or 1880 – May 15, 1966
Notable: Poet, Playwright, & Salon Host
Nationality: American

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Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born in Atlanta, GA, the exact year is unclear though it’s considered to have been either 1877 or 1880. Through her parents, Laura and George Douglas Camp, Camp’s ancestry was a mixture of African American, Native American, and European. Camp spent part of her early childhood in Rome, Georgia where she began school before returning to Atlanta. An only child who seemed not to have many friends, Camp’s childhood was fairly solitary and lonely with much of her time spent with her violin.

After completing her high school studies at the Atlanta University Normal School, Camp found work as a teacher in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta. Sometime thereafter, she moved to Atlanta for another position. But Camp only spent a short time in that position before leaving to further her education.

In the first few years of the 1900s, Camp relocated to Ohio to study music. She spent time at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Cleveland College of Music focusing on music, harmony, and voice with plans to become a composer. The details are unclear but some sources state that Camp then returned to working as an assistant principal in Atlanta.

It was around this time that Camp married Henry Lincoln Johnson, a prominent Atlanta attorney and government worker, and became Georgia Douglas Johnson. The marriage produced two sons, Henry Lincoln, Jr. and Peter Douglas. Despite balancing caring for her young children and a career, Johnson maintained her passion for music and began to pursue an interest in writing. She penned poems and stories that were published locally and also created musical compositions for churches. This was even with limited encouragement from her husband who preferred for her to be a traditional homemaker.

At the end of the decade, Johnson’s husband received an appointment to Recorder of the Deeds for the District of Columbia. The role that had traditionally been appointed to a prominent Black man dating back to Frederick Douglass was quite significant. For her husband to accept the position, Johnson and her family were required to relocate to Washington, D.C.

The Johnsons settled in a home at 1461 S Street Northwest. Johnson made her home open to those who were in need and in time it came to be referred to as “The Halfway House”. On Saturday nights, Black intellectuals and writers visited the home for sessions known as the “Round Table” or the “S Street Salon”. The literary salon would see writers sharing their creations, critiquing the work of others, and debating various topics. Contemporary and future legends such as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, etc. were regular attendees.

Combining what was now several years of writing experience and the opportunity to rub shoulders with great authors allowed Johnson to hone her craft. Johnson published her first poetry collection, The Heart of a Woman, in 1918. The poems focused on various facets of the female experience. It was well-received but there was some criticism as it contained little to no commentary on race. Some assumed that Johnson did not care about issues affecting Black people.

To combat those inaccurate assumptions, Johnson published her second volume of poetry, Bronze, in 1922. The poems still voiced Johnson’s experience as a woman but this time decidedly as a Black woman. She would release two additional volumes of poetry An Autumn Love Cycle (1928) and Share My World (1962).

Unfortunately, Johnson’s husband died in 1925 leaving her as the sole support for their two teenaged sons. In the immediate aftermath, Johnson did temporary jobs which included teaching and civil service file clerk. She then found a permanent role at the U.S. Department of Labor where she remained for ten years.

And yet, Johnson continued to write, publishing plays in the late 1920s that were produced and/or won awards. Her various jobs combined with writing allowed Johnson to put her sons through medical and law school though she experienced financial hardships. Yet, by the 1930s and into the 1940s, Johnson struggled to get her work published. Johnson continued to write though the literary world had largely moved on to other Black female writers by the 1950s.

On May 15, 1966, Georgia Douglas Johnson died of a stroke. A year prior, she had received an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. While she never lived in Harlem, being an active Black writer and intellectual during this time as well as hosting a literary salon led to Johnson being considered part of the Harlem Renaissance. She is believed to have penned short stories and at least one novel that have been lost. Several of her compositions were never published and some of her papers which likely included writings were accidentally discarded after her death.

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