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Helen (Helene) Johnson was born on this date in 1906. She was an early 20th-century Black poet.
Born in Boston, Helene (a nickname given to her by her aunt) Johnson spent her early years at her grandfather’s house, though she grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. She took classes at Boston University and joined that city’s Saturday Evening Quill Club.
She began her literary career when she won first prize in a short story competition sponsored by the Boston Chronicle. At that time, she was also given an honorable mention in a poetry contest organized by Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League, and a leading showcase for the talents of African American artists.
Johnson and her cousin Dorothy West moved to Harlem in the 1920s, where she attended Columbia University for a time, although she never graduated. She continued to write poetry, and her work was in the first and only issue of Fire!!, edited by the novelist Wallace Thurman, poet Langston Hughes, and artist Richard Bruce Nugent, who encouraged Johnson to launch a career as a writer.
She was once hailed as one of the best poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Then, suddenly, she disappeared from the literary scene and, for more than 50 years, wrote only for herself. Her published legacy is a handful of widely anthologized poems that capture the youthful spirit of urgency and discovery that animated jazz-age Harlem in the decade before the Depression. She married William Hubbell in 1933 and had one child Abigail.
In 1935, Johnson’s last published poems appeared in Challenge: A Literary Quarterly. Helen Johnson died in 1995.
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York