In his latest column, on the cusp of Black History Month, John Cross ’76 reflects on two alumni from the 1920s who, “each in his own way, put a shoulder to the wheel to advance human dignity and ensure social justice.”
In looking through a bound copy of The Quill (Bowdoin’s literary magazine) for 1924 that had once belonged to President Kenneth C. M. Sills, Class of 1901, I came across a three-page essay on “Prejudices” by future Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist W. Hodding Carter, Jr., of the Class of 1927. After declaring that his initial impulse was to write a defense of the Ku Klux Klan, Carter proceeded to vent his anger at French Canadians, “Sons of Erin,” African Americans, and New Englanders whose ancestors had profited from the slave trade. By any standard, it was strong stuff to read in a College publication, especially coming, as it did, from a seventeen-year-old from Louisiana. It was with deep regret and no small measure of shame that Carter would later recall that for his first year at Bowdoin he refused to talk to (or even remain in the same room with) the College’s only African-American student at that time, who lived in an adjacent room in Winthrop Hall.
Carter’s attitudes and actions were not met with indifference on campus. Mary Ham (the wife of Professor of German Roscoe Ham) encouraged literary creativity by Bowdoin students at meetings in her home, and offered her assessment of Carter’s essay in a Bowdoin Orient review: “(It) is delightful in style, outrageous in spirit. Let us hope the style is the man.” Carter encountered students who challenged his assumptions and opinions, and faculty and administrators who understood that first-year students had a great deal to learn about the people with whom they would share life’s journey. Years later, Carter attributed a transformation in his attitudes on race relations to the gentle, but persistent, efforts of the Bowdoin community: “…looking back on those four years, I am convinced that the most important gift I received from Bowdoin was not what I learned here, but what I unlearned here.” When Carter returned to Louisiana after his graduation, he held new convictions about social justice that, in his own words, “rendered me more than a little suspect” in the deep South of the late 1920s.
Hodding Carter and his wife, Betty, established a newspaper in his home town of Hammond, and his editorials quickly established him at the top of Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s list of enemies. In 1936 he and Betty founded The Delta Star newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi, and together they took on the issue of deep-seated racism in the Depression-era South. Never one to adjust his editorial opinions to curry favor, Carter used to say that “We are so busy trying to make friends that we don’t take time to make the right kind of enemies.” World War II took Carter to the Middle East and North Africa as a journalist, where he witnessed first-hand the consequences of prejudices and poverty. In 1946 he received a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial on the discrimination faced by Japanese-American servicemen of the Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team returning to civilian life. Bowdoin awarded him an honorary degree in 1947.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s Carter continued to stir up controversy. His denunciation of white violence prompted death threats, he was burned in effigy, and he was censured by the Mississippi legislature for supporting President Kennedy’s decision to send federal troops to safeguard the integration of the University of Mississippi. For taking these and other principled editorial stands he received the Bowdoin Prize in 1963. To current sensibilities his writings may seem paternalistic. Historians have pointed out that Carter took pride in what he saw as the best elements of Southern society, and that his views on integration were nuanced in ways that defy easy characterization here, but that kept him out of the mainstream of the civil rights movement.
…looking back on those four years, I am convinced that the most important gift I received from Bowdoin was not what I learned here, but what I unlearned here.
By all accounts, the story of Hodding Carter’s transformation at Bowdoin is compelling, and the story of his career is inspirational. But I also wondered what had happened to the single African-American student at Bowdoin who experienced the contempt of an unreconstructed Hodding Carter in 1923-24. Finding the identity of Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. ’27 (“Linc”) proved to be a great deal easier than finding out about his life after Bowdoin. Johnson grew up in Washington, DC, where his father – a lawyer active in Republican Party politics – had been appointed as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia by President Taft. His mother was poet, playwright, and musician Georgia Douglas Johnson. Georgia held a regular literary salon in the Johnson home, which attracted the leading African-American intellectuals and artists of the day, including W. E. B. DuBois, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Langston Hughes, and Anne Spencer.
After his graduation in 1926, Linc earned a law degree from Howard University and opened a practice in Washington. He was active in the NAACP, and worked as an attorney for Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York to advance the cause of civil rights. There are no letters from Henry in his alumni file, but there are several from his mother. In a 1963 letter she wrote, “He came [to Bowdoin] with a patch on the seat of his trousers and a little steamer trunk and I said: ‘Go my son and stay as long as you can’…While my son was there, he was allowed to help one of his teachers who was kind enough to allow him to help with his expenses … he played the viola with his classmates and traveled with them for certain appearances. I believe those years at Bowdoin were among the pleasantest in his life. The atmosphere, the teacher and school-mates made school days delightful and unforgettable.”
Two young men, initially separated by Carter’s bigotry, would, each in his own way, put a shoulder to the wheel to advance human dignity and ensure social justice. Hodding Carter passed away in 1972 and Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr. died in 1992. I wish that I could turn back time to seek answers that might fill in the gaps in the story created by Hodding’s bare bones account and by Henry’s unspoken words and unwritten lines about the 1923-24 year that they shared in Winthrop Hall.
With Best Wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations