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On this date in 1878, Kathryn Johnson was born. She was a Black civil rights activist and writer.
Kathryn Magnolia Johnson was born in Drake County (a Colored Settlement) near Greenville, Ohio. She attended public schools in New Paris, Ohio, and studied at Wilberforce University from 1897-98 and 1901-02. She also studied at the University of North Dakota in 1908. Johnson began teaching in 1898 in the Indiana and Ohio school systems. In 1910, after moving to Kansas City, she shifted her career to “race work.” Johnson is credited by many as the first field worker for the NAACP.
In 1913, she made her living with commissions from the organization by building branch memberships throughout the country, beginning in the South and West. In February 1915, she was given a small salary for her commission. Oddly, she was let go by the organization (some say) due to her forceful personality and insistence on all-Black leadership with the NAACP. Johnson and Addie Hunton were two of three Black women who worked for the YMCA in France during World War I to guard the rights of Black American soldiers abroad.
Once they returned home, the two wrote the book Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces (1920). The book described the poor treatment of black soldiers observed in the cultural climate of France during the war. Johnson's mission after returning from France was to spread activism against racial oppression by promoting literacy. Johnson began a nationwide campaign to help improve civil rights by promoting literacy.
This included selling books from black authors called "A Two Foot Shelf of Negro Literature" and selecting and circulating literature by Carter G, Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Brawley, and James Weldon Johnson. By being a bookseller, Johnson hoped to promote reading among African Americans to learn more about their historical contributions and hopefully inspire them to take action in the fight against racial oppression. Over the years, Johnson had traveled over "9,000 miles and sold 15,000 books." Johnson's work also helped show African American women's possibilities and restrictions during this period.
She continued to teach, lecture, and agitate for civil rights. As an elder, Kathryn Magnolia Johnson lived in Ezella Mathias Carter's Home for Colored Working Women in Chicago. Johnson died on November 13, 1954.
To be a Writer
The Book of African American Women:
150 Crusaders, Creators, and Uplifters
by Tonya Bolden