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Tue, 07.26.1870

Henry Lincoln Johnson, Lawyer, and Politician born

Henry L. Johnson, 1914

*Henry Lincoln Johnson was born on this date in 1870.  He was a Black lawyer and politician.

From Augusta, Georgia, he was the son of former slaves Martha Ann and Peter Johnson.  Known to family and friends as "Linc," he attended Clark Atlanta University and graduated in 1888.  Johnson obtained a law degree in 1892 from the University of Michigan.   

After passing the Georgia bar exam, he opened a law practice in Atlanta, eventually becoming the attorney for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.  In 1903, Johnson married fellow Clark Atlanta University graduate Georgia Douglas 1903.  She achieved literary fame as a poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance.  The couple had two sons, Peter Douglas Johnson and Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr., the latter of whom became an attorney.

He was one of the most prominent Black Republicans of the first two decades of the 20th century and was a leader 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 Blacks.  In June 1921, following the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, Johnson was again appointed Recorder of the Deeds for the District by Republican President Warren G. Harding.  Still, he saw his appointment rejected by the United States Senate, meeting in executive session an episode that garnered newspaper headlines and marked the finish of Johnson's national political influence.

During the first years of the 20th century Johnson emerged as a leading boss in Georgia Republican politics. Johnson's role was the chief dispenser of political patronage to Black Republicans in the state, an important component of the Republican Party coalition in the era.  In 1910, Johnson was appointed by President William Howard Taft as Registrar of Deeds for the District of Columbia.  He worked 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 Blacks from federally appointed positions in 1913.  Johnson was sharply criticized for hubris by the Black socialist magazine, The Messenger, which savaged Johnson as an example of a "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."

It was during the 1916 Presidential election that the Republican Party of Georgia split into two rival political factions a group of African American dominated regulars headed by Johnson, commonly known as the "black and tans," and an insurgency of white-Americans commonly known as the "lily whites". 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.   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.

They were designed to force the National Republican Party to take a firm stand against lynching, Jim Crow laws, voter disfranchisement, and other assaults on the Black community.  Johnson won promises that the Republican Party would take more determined action on these matters if the White House won in the fall of 1920.  That year, he achieved his highest formal political rank when elected as Georgia's representative to the Republican National Committee.  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.

A racial breach in the Republican Party of Georgia erupted in the aftermath of the election with the new Republican administration of Warren G. Harding to control federal patronage in the state.  Harding reacted to the factional split.  Harding's machination was endorsed by the "lily whites," Johnson was ultimately induced to quit the factional battle and to exit Georgia politics through a reappointment to Registrar of Deeds for the District of Columbia.  The United States Senate took up Johnson's appointment for ratification in November 1921.  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.   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.

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.  These extremely serious charges carried a potential penalty of 30 years in prison or execution, not to mention the possibility of extrajudicial lynching.  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.  After six hours of deliberation, the jury failed to agree on the case, with seven jurors voting for acquittal; the foreman later commented that the defendant owed his life to Johnson's summation.  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 Black community.

Henry Lincoln Johnson died on September 10, 1925, at Freedmen's Hospital after a stroke at his home in Washington, D.C. he was 55.  According to his death notice in the New York Age, he was a law partner of Bill Pledger and succeeded him in political office.  He was buried on September 14, 1925, at Columbian Harmony Cemetery.  His remains were moved to National Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in 1959 when Columbian Harmony closed.

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