BRISTOL, Va. (AP) — Two state historical markers recalling a Bristol civil rights leader and the Lee Street Baptist Church were dedicated last week.
One of the markers, installed at Cumberland Square Park facing Lee Street, recalls the life of Charles Spurgeon Johnson. The marker describes Johnson as a sociologist, author and civil rights leader. He was the son of a 42-year pastor, Charles Henry Johnson, of Lee Street Baptist Church, which is recognized in its own new marker at the park.
With a cold drizzling rain, dozens gathered Oct. 30 under the canopy of the Bristol City Courthouse at the corner of Cumberland Street and Lee Street — the namesake of Lee Street Baptist Church. The Bristol Historical Association, the markers’ sponsor, hosted the event, which featured city leaders, ministers, historical preservation leaders, as well as Jeh Johnson, former secretary of Homeland Security and a grandson of Charles Spurgeon Johnson.
Both markers were approved for manufacture and installation earlier this year by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. The markers’ manufacturing costs were covered by the sponsor. There are currently more than 2,600 official state markers in the state, and most are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, by local partners in jurisdictions outside of VDOT’s authority such as the city of Bristol.
The Bristol Herald Courier first covered Johnson’s story in December of 2017 and in editorials urged the community to remember the civil rights leader. The articles described Johnson as “Bristol’s most famous unknown son.”
“The article challenged the community to honor Charles Spurgeon Johnson,” said Sid Oakley with the Bristol Historical Association.
Oakley said a group of individuals were meeting at the time to discuss the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Bristol.
The group decided that a state historical marker for Johnson was just what the historic group needed to do. The markers are the first in Bristol to recognize an African American resident, Oakley said.
“This has been the most ... enjoyable experience of my life,” Oakley said of the process to install the markers.
Jeh Johnson, the former cabinet secretary, spoke briefly on behalf of the family. He said his family is proud and thankful that the city has worked to install the markers, and they are pleased with the work put into the project. Johnson identified several Johnson descendants in the crowd during the event.
Colita Fairfax, a member of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, which is authorized to designate new historical markers, said she made sure to participate in the gathering. She said she felt a connection with Charles Johnson’s work.
After several speeches by Oakley, Jeh Johnson, Fairfax, Bristol Tennessee Mayor Mahlon Luttrell, Bristol Virginia Vice Mayor Neal Osborne and singing by the Lee Street Baptist Church choir, the Historical Association unveiled the two markers.
When Charles Henry Johnson moved from Richmond, Virginia, to Bristol, which served as a railroad town, in 1890, he became the minister of a little wooden church started by 39 freed slaves. A few pastors had come through the church, which was organized 25 years earlier, but Johnson stuck, according to a Dec. 17, 2017, article in the Bristol Herald Courier.
He transformed the church, which, according to a news report from more than 75 years ago, had been “in the midst of some confusion.” It quickly became the hub of Bristol’s Black community and, just two years after Johnson arrived, outgrew the small building. The congregation moved to a new location on Lee Street, which became the church’s namesake.
Current Lee Street Baptist pastor W.A. Johnson, no relation to Charles Johnson, told the Bristol Herald Courier that the church had at least 700 members. The church later moved to its current location on West Mary Street.
“(It had) a bigger sanctuary than this church,” W.A. Johnson said. “(Charles) Johnson was the one who put it on the map.”
In their book about Johnson’s son, Charles Spurgeon Johnson — who left Bristol to become a prominent sociologist, a pioneer in the field of race relations and the first Black president of Nashville’s Fisk University — Patrick J. Gilpin and Marybeth Gasman describe Charles Henry as a young and energetic minister, according to former Bristol Herald Courier reporter Alyssa Oursler. He transformed “the rowdy railroad camp” of Bristol into an “orderly and thriving community,” they wrote. But charisma wasn’t all that set him apart.
“He was a high-caliber fellow,” Johnson said. “He was educated. You didn’t have much of that anywhere in the South in 1890 (after) just 30 years of freedom. He was one of the pioneers.”
Johnson was said to have ended lynching — mob killings of Black people — in Bristol, too. His confrontation of a mob, Gilpin and Gasman wrote, didn’t save that victim but did prevent a repeat of the injustice.
He remained the pastor of Lee Street Baptist until his death in 1932.
After six decades at Lee Street, the original brick-veneer Lee Street Baptist Church, which was weakened by periodic flooding of adjacent Beaver Creek, was razed. In 1966, the congregation moved into a new building on West Mary Street.
Dr. Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1893-1956)
Charles S. Johnson, sociologist, author, and civil rights leader, was born in Bristol, son of a 42-year pastor of Lee Street Baptist Church. He attended Virginia Union University and the University of Chicago and served in combat during World War I. A scholar of race relations, he was the primary author of a seminal analysis of the Chicago race riots of 1919. He became the first director of research at the National Urban League and was a driving force behind the Harlem Renaissance as editor of Opportunity magazine. At Fisk University, Johnson led the social sciences department, published widely, and established annual Race Relations Institutes. In 1947 he became Fisk’s first Black president.
LEE STREET BAPTIST CHRUCH
In 1865, at the dawn of their freedom from slavery, 42 former members of the white-led Goodson (now First) Baptist Church organized the Anglo African Baptist Church. The congregation met in a series of buildings until, under the leadership of the Rev. Charles Henry Johnson, they built a new edifice just across the street from here in 1905. The Rev. Johnson served the church, later renamed Lee Street Baptist, until he died during his 42nd year as pastor in 1932. After six decades here, the original brick-veneer church, weakened by the periodic flooding of adjacent Beaver Creek, was razed. In 1966, the congregation moved into a new building at 1 West Mary Street.