Bishop Joseph A. Johnson Jr. was Vanderbilt University’s first Black student and graduate. The late theologian was admitted to the Nashville, Tenn. school on this day in 1953, and then earned a Ph.D. from the university as well.
Johnson was born on June 19, 1914 in Shreveport, La. The future bishop graduated with honors from Texas College in 1938, and then earned a master’s and doctorate degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. Details about why Johnson chose Vanderbilt are sparse, but it appears he applied as a joke. At 38 years of age and with three children, Johnson was far older than even some of the graduate students.
As he had already earned advanced degrees, it’s not known why Vanderbilt had him go through the process of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in divinity from its school. But In 1958, while working as a minister at Nashville’s Capers Memorial Church, he also obtained his Ph.D there.
The clergyman wrote several books about theology, including 1971’s The Soul of The Black Preacher. As a prominent representative of the Christian Methodist Church, Johnson mentioned in passing that his desire to become a minister was to be an asset to Black people and follow in the footsteps of his minister father. Johnson didn’t talk much about his time at Vanderbilt, but he endured some of the school’s racist segregation policies.
Johnson passed from a sudden illness in 1979, but his name lives on in a variety of awards and honors bestowed upon him by Vanderbilt. His granddaughter, Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver, is an elder of the C.M.E. church and is reportedly writing a biography about her grandfather.