Robert Pierre Johnson: Man of Mystery

Written by Jenna Marrone on February 22nd, 2011

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“This is ridiculous!” I cried, throwing my hands up in disgust.

From across the table, my processing partner, Brian, reluctantly looked up from his work.  “What’s ridiculous?”

“This guy,” I replied, shaking my head in frustration.  I was referring to the Reverend Robert Pierre Johnson, creator of the collection we were processing at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Though it was a relatively small collection – less than three linear feet – I was experiencing some problems with it.

My archivist-angst was not directed at the collection itself.  Indeed, from an organizational perspective, it was a minimal processor’s dream.  Johnson’s correspondence, sermons, notebooks, and a few subject files came to us fairly well organized.  Nor did I have an issue with Johnson.  In fact, he seemed like a truly amazing person.  He lived from 1914 to 1974, and led an exceptional life.  He was a Presbyterian minister, and the first black man to be elected to the position of Executive Presbyter of New York City.  He held pastorates in both Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., and was a prominent religious authority in D.C. during the March on Washington and the passing of the Civil Rights Act.  In addition, Johnson had high-ranking positions on a number of national Presbyterian organizations.  Because of these positions, he was drawn into two notable incidents of the 1960s and 70s: James Forman and his Black Manifesto, which demanded financial reparations for African Americans from white churches, and the situation involving Angela Davis, a fugitive whose legal fees were paid for in part by a Presbyterian organization.

Wow! One thinks upon hearing this brief bio.  This guy was in it!  Golly, I bet he had a ton of stuff to say about all of this drama!

Except that he DIDN’T.  This is where my frustration with the collection lies.  For all of Johnson’s proximity to important historical events, as well as his own history-making role within the Presbyterian Church, he left us with little personal information.  We know almost nothing about how he felt regarding or reacted to these important incidents.  A quick scan of his correspondence reveals that he was an excellent pastor and a respected member of his organizations.  And yet, they reveal little of Johnson himself.  His folders on James Forman and Angela Davis are filled with third-party material – nothing that immediately reveals his active role within the events.

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Over the hours we processed, I grew increasingly frustrated with the collection and Johnson’s mysteriousness.  “Look!” I said to Brian at one point, waving a paper in the air.  “It’s a list of all the articles he had published in major news publications.”  I gestured to the folders piled between us.  “And none of it’s here!  We have all these letters and stuff, but I still feel like we know nothing about what he thought or what he believed in.”

“That’s true.”  Brian leaned forward and tapped on a book filled with Johnson’s sermons.  “But I think it’s all in here.”

Surprised, I stopped to consider Brian’s words.  It was certainly possible that Johnson’s personal beliefs could be found in the numerous books and folders containing his hand-written sermons.  Isn’t this something that a pastor, particularly one who seemed so dedicated to God, would do?  For example, Brian asserts that Johnson was a huge supporter of civil rights, almost from the beginning of his career.  His passion for equality was merely couched in the religious rhetoric he preached to his congregation.  This is apparently only one of many such examples.  Whether Johnson deliberately left so little of himself behind, or whether he had a personal preference to express himself predominately in sermons, we cannot know.

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This mysteriousness – and the answers that can be found in Johnson’s writings – tells us two things.  One, that perhaps this collection was not as good a minimal processing candidate as we originally thought.  Though it came to us fairly well organized, it would require more processing time to pull out the interesting facts that make it unique.  It also raises the interesting point that, perhaps Johnson’s papers don’t contain enough critical information to warrant a high research value.  I’m willing to bet that Johnson, with his birds-eye view on some fascinating moments in history, had plenty to say that he just didn’t tell us, and there is a good bet that it lurks within his collection.

For permission to use images of items from the Johnson papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.


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