Reaching Beyond Expectations

Several years ago now I wrote an article about American architect Jeh Vincent Johnson for a reference publication called Contemporary Black Biography. With so much being written about Barak Obama’s achievement in becoming President only forty or so years since segregation I’ve been thinking about this remarkable and generous man, who was kind enough to grant me an interview to support the piece. The United States has come a long way in terms of its racial politics but it has been as much to do with high-achieving black educators, architects, lawyers and other professionals as it has the revolutionaries and speech makers. It is worth remembering that the drive for equal rights in the United States goes back much further than the well-known events of the 1960s and that the door to high achievement has been grinding open for a century or more. It has been a long road indeed.

Jeh Vincent Johnson was born in 1931 and was educated at Columbia College and then, after winning a scholarship, at Columbia University. His father was Charles Spurgeon Johnson, a sociologist, born in 1893, who developed the Social Science Institute of Fisk University into a major centre for the study of race relations. Charles S. Johnson served with the League of Nations (which became the UN) and was the first black President of Fisk; he was inaugurated as such in 1947. His son, Jeh Vincent Johnson had a similarly meteoric rise. Having set up in private practice in 1959 to specialise in designing social housing, he was a member, in the late 1960s, of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Urban Problems, known as The Douglas Commission.

Jeh Johnson’s time as a part of the Douglas Commission put him at the centre of America’s efforts to tackle poverty and discrimination. He told me that government agencies were strongly distrusted by people living in the tough neighbourhoods they visited and that members of the Commission were sometimes attacked or threatened, though they rarely accepted the offer of a police escort. As I wrote in my piece: “Johnson noted [that] the work of the commission was received without fanfare, but most of its recommendations for ways of rationalizing taxation, construction processes, and alleviating segregation have since been adopted.”

Johnson spent many years teaching at Vassar College, where he was a dedicated advocate of equality in architecture, encouraging women and minority students to enter the profession. He was later a founder of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and while few people outside of American architectural circles will have heard of him his influence on architecture as a profession, and on urban design in particular, is significant.

The third generation of the family is represented by Jeh Charles Johnson, son of Jeh Vincent Johnson, born in 1957. He served in the Clinton administration as General Counsel of the Department of the Air Force and was a foreign policy adviser and fundraiser for Barak Obama’s campaign. He will no doubt have influence in the new administration. News reports around the Obama campaign focused naturally on the more visible aspects of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but the revolution has also taken place in quieter ways, in the hard work and achievement of several generations of families like this one, and in the encouragement and assistance they received to, as Jeh V. Johnson himself put it, “reach beyond their expectations.”

Here’s the link to my piece on Jeh Vincent Johnson again.