Baltimore pastor a visionary for equality


The Rev. Harvey Johnson, son of slaves, sought civil rights

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February 17, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,Sun reporter

When the Rev. Harvey Johnson graduated from Wayland Seminary in 1872, he came to Baltimore as pastor of the Union Baptist Church, which had been established in 1852.

And during the next 50 years, he would become a towering figure and outspoken advocate for civil rights.

When he arrived at Union, there were about 270 members; during his ministry, the church grew to 3,028 members and moved in 1905 to its present location at 1219 Druid Hill Ave.

A visionary, Johnson rebelled against the discriminatory practices of the Maryland Baptist Union Association, which had denominational authority over Baptist churches in the state, and stood firm against the actions of prejudiced white Baptists.

Because of the largely white association's actions against black Baptist churches, Johnson withdrew his church in 1892.

"That the time has fully come when we as Colored Baptists should establish and maintain our own denominational institutions, as Colored Baptists, is the true, deep and solemn conviction of many of the brethren, and I am of the same conviction," Johnson said in 1897, the year he founded the Colored Baptist Convention of Maryland.

"He has never held any political position, from the fact that he never took any part in politics, except for prohibition; he has labored, however, very earnestly in trying to obtain the rights of the race as citizens, which has brought him into communication with a large number of the prominent men of the country," wrote the Rev. William J. Simmons in his 1887 book, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising.

"Some of the measures he has been interested in securing for the race are the following: Opening the bar to colored lawyers in Baltimore; assisting four of his members in a suit against the steamer Sue. The case was won, and there has been no trouble to get proper accommodations in traveling on all boats sailing out of Baltimore," he wrote.

"That he was the leader in these things there can be no doubt," Simmons wrote.

In the case of the Sue, Johnson championed the Stewart sisters of Baltimore, who had refused to occupy filthy cabins on a bay steamboat that had been designated for black passengers. They brought suit in 1884 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and won.

Judge Thomas J. Morris wrote in his decision that the plaintiffs, "all colored persons, to be sure, but respectable," claimed that the stairway leading to the cabins for black passengers were "obstructed by cattle."

He ordered the steamboat company to pay $100 in damages to each of the sisters and underscored the fact that if the company's intentions were to keep blacks and whites separate, accommodations must be "free from any actual discrimination in comfort, attention or appearance of inferiority."

The case was also significant because it was one of a series of discrimination cases brought in lower courts that resulted in Plessy v. Ferguson, the historic 1896 Supreme Court decision that provided the legal basis for segregation as long as it was "separate but equal."

In 1905, Johnson traveled to Niagara Falls, Ontario, to attend a meeting that became known as the Niagara Movement. The movement called for the abolition of all distinctions based on race, and became the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was established four years later.

Johnson also successfully worked to remove the inequality of salaries between white and black educators.

Johnson, who was born in 1843 to slaves in Fauquier County, Va., moved after the Civil War with his family to Alexandria, Va.

He enrolled at Wayland Seminary in Washington in 1868 after deciding to become a preacher and after graduation worked briefly in Virginia and Maryland for the Home Mission Society before coming to Union Baptist Church.

He was married in 1877 to Amelia E. Hall, a writer who published The Joy, a literary magazine that published black writers.

She also wrote the "Children's Corner," a weekly column that was published in the Baltimore Sower and Reaper, and raised three children. She died in 1922.

Johnson died the following year.

"The death of Dr. Harvey Johnson removes from the life of the city one of the last of the `Old Guard'," said an editorial in the Baltimore Afro American.

"The decade following the Civil War produced a number of sterling characters who wrote their names in flaming letters in the hearts of Baltimore. Among them none was of nobler and finer stuff than Dr. Harvey Johnson," said the editorial.

"In his younger days a preacher to fire the soul, in his older days a venerable priest and shepherd who kept his flock intact thru a half century. He was a thinker, scholar and a writer, but with it all a man who guided and directed the work of the community."

It concluded: "His was a life brimful of labor and service for others. No need is there for a monument to such a giant character. His church, his denomination, his community tell more eloquently than words of the life of a great citizen."

Two thousand mourners jammed into Union Baptist Church for Johnson's funeral, after which he was buried next to his wife in the old Laurel Cemetery near Belair Road and Edison Highway.

The 3-acre cemetery was closed in 1958 to make way for a shopping center and the remains of 300 African-Americans were reinterred in a new cemetery, also named Laurel, near Johnsville, a historic black community near Eldersburg, in Carroll County.

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