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Robert C. Johnson, Jr.

Africana studies professor, lawyer and playwright Robert C. Johnson was born in Summit, Tennessee near Chattanooga on May 13, 1948 and moved with his family to Boston, Massachusetts at age thirteen. After struggling in Boston public schools, he transferred to the prestigious private school, the Commonwealth School. There he excelled under the mentorship of Charles E, Merrill, Jr., the founder and headmaster. At Commonwealth, Johnson participated in extracurricular activities and began writing plays. He received a B.A. degree in political studies from Bowdoin College in 1971 and a Watson Fellowship to write plays and study African American immigrants in East Africa. Johnson earned a M.A. degree in Africana Studies in 1975 and his J.D. degree in 1977, both from Cornell University. As a law student, he worked on the defense team for prisoners implicated in the Attica Prison riots and he later, developed an educational program at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.

From 1977 to 1978, Johnson worked as an affirmative action officer for the Massachusetts Board of Community Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He left affirmative action work to practice employment and criminal law with his law partner, Eddie Jenkins, Jr. After a heart attack in 1992, Johnson stepped back from his law practice and became an Africana Studies professor at University of Massachusetts at Boston. Johnson has published extensively in the field of African American history. Most notable among his books are Why Blacks Left America for Africa: Interviews with Black Expatriates, 1971-1999 and Nantucket's People of Color: Essays on History, Politics, and Community. As a playwright Johnson has documented the African American experience with dramas such as Scag, Stop and Frisk and Mama G

Johnson has been involved with many community projects and philanthropic organizations including the “The African Diaspora Program” an after school development program for African American youth in Boston and the United South End Settlements' Harriet Tubman House. Johnson has been married to Amy Merrill, the daughter of his mentor Charles E. Merrill, Jr., for over ten years. He has two children, Gary Weldon and Amika Ama.

Robert C. Johnson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on April 7, 2006.

Accession Number

A2006.068

Sex

Male

Interview Date

4/7/2006

Last Name

Johnson

Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

C.

Schools

Commonwealth School

Bowdoin College

Cornell University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Robert

Birth City, State, Country

Summit

HM ID

JOH27

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Tennessee

Favorite Vacation Destination

Vermont; Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Favorite Quote

The Power Of The People Is Greater Than The Man’s Technology

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Interview Description
Birth Date

5/13/1948

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fried Chicken

Short Description

Playwright, africana studies professor, and lawyer Robert C. Johnson, Jr. (1948 - ) has written several books and plays documenting the experience of the African diaspora as well as advocating for social change for African Americans.

Employment

University of Massachusetts, Boston

Bentley University

Massachusetts Regional Board of Community College

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Robert C. Johnson, Jr.'s interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his middle name

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. recalls moving from Summit, Tennessee to Boston, Massachusetts with his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his early childhood in Summit, Tennessee

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his mother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his father

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes annual family reunions

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about researching his mother's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about researching his father's family background

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. recalls his earliest childhood memories of Summit, Tennessee

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in Summit, Tennessee and Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his year at the Dwight School in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his years at the Charles E. Mackey School in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about English High School of Boston, Massachusetts, and entering the ABC (A Better Chance) program

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes attending the Commonwealth School in Boston, Massachusetts, through the ABC (A Better Chance) Program

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his first play, 'Coffee and Sour Cream'

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about riots in Roxbury, Boston, Massachusetts after the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his decision to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his years at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his 1971 trip to East Africa through the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. recounts his decision to attend law school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his activism at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about working on the 1971 Attica Prison rioters' legal defense with W. Haywood Burns and HistoryMaker Howard Moore, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes working at the Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges as an affirmative action officer

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about entering private practice with HistoryMaker Eddie Jenkins, Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes his community and public service with HistoryMakers Eddie Jenkins, Jr. and Charles "Chuck" Turner

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his mentally-ill son's 1991 arrest, which inspired his play 'Stop and Frisk'

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his plays

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his photography, vintage car restoration, and trips to Vermont and Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Massachusetts

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his book, 'Shona,' and his work to exonerate Ndume Olatushani in Tennessee

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his published works

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes working with the University of Massachusetts Boston's Africana Studies department

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. reflects upon his interracial marriage to playwright Amy Merrill

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. reflects upon his life

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community and about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Robert C. Johnson, Jr. narrates his photographs

DASession

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DATape

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DAStory

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DATitle
Robert C. Johnson, Jr. describes working at the Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges as an affirmative action officer
Robert C. Johnson, Jr. talks about his published works
Transcript
So professor you were awarded your Doctor of Laws [J.D.] degree from Cornell Law School [Ithaca, New York] in 1977?$$Right.$$And what came next?$$Well I, I got my master's in 1975, so I got the master's in '75 [1975], and '77 [1977], I got the law degree and then I moved to Boston [Massachusetts]. We moved to Mattapan in Boston, we bought a house there for $28 thousand, nice old Victorian house, huge yard, about fifteen fruit trees, and started to raise a family.$$Um-hm.$$In, in terms of--I was married to Renda [ph.] Johnson, or Renda Harriston [ph.] was her maiden name and we had two children, my daughter was born in Ithaca, New York, Anika Johnson, so, two kids, Gary and Anika.$$Um-hm.$$One of the first things I had to decide is their schooling and I did not want them to go to the public schools, 'cause the public schools were terrible and I saw what education had meant for me and so I sent them to private schools. My daughter went to the Advent School [Boston, Massachusetts] and then the Beaver Country Day School [Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts] and then my son went to Chestnut Hill School [Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts], and I forgot the other school he went to.$$Um-hm.$$And then I started to work at Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges as affirmative action officer, and, and I wanted a job that would have an influence in the black community and bring about some kinda social change. So, I met Alan Jackson, I knew Alan Jackson, Alan Jackson put me in touch with Betty Johnson, Betty Johnson was on the board of directors for the Mass Board of Regional Community Colleges [Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges], there was a brother who was chairman of the board, I can't recall his name, Pat--Patrick Jones from Lena Park [Boston, Massachusetts], he was on the board, he was head of the committee, personnel committee but he was head of the affirmative action committee. So I met with Betty, and Betty said, "Robert, with your legal background, we can do some really good stuff in the community colleges," so I said fine, so I came and, and worked there which was great because we set up the policies for the community colleges, and the policies were very explicit. Everyone, every professional position had to be signed off in the, in the central office, I reviewed all--everything that came through and I remember in Massasoit Community College--no, at Mass Bay Community College [Massachusetts Bay Community College, Wellesley, Framingham, and Ashland, Massachusetts] they were looking for a dean of faculty and there was a brother who had applied, he was from some community college in New Jersey and they didn't recommend him, they recommended a white person, now we'd, we'd setup these procedures where they had to set forth the reason why a black person was not give- being recommended. So, the reason they put was that he couldn't communicate well, so I went to Betty, I called Betty, I said, "Betty, you know I got this thing here, you know this position and there's a brother who applied and, you know, they say he can't communicate, I said I wanna hold it up." And she said, "Yeah Bob, I'm with you, you know tell the president that, you know you're gonna hold it up." So we held it up and we said to them, brought 'em in the president of the college came into the central office, and we said, "What's this here, you know, about this guy can't communicate?" I mean here's a guy who was the dean of the faculty and of a school in New Jersey.$$Um-hm.$$He did well, all of his references are well, no problem with communication, he has a Ph.D. [degree], from a major university, he had to defend his dissertation, he's been teaching, excellent teaching records, and you're saying he can't communicate. So, we said, we're not gonna sign off on it.$$Um-hm.$$And the president told the president of the college you better go back and bring the brother in, which is what he did, so we did that kinda stuff--$$Um-hm.$$--As a result, we integrated the community colleges--$$Um-hm.$$--In the state.$So, I did that in my sabbatical, and of course I did a lot of research on my family history while I was down there [Tennessee] and then came back to Boston [Massachusetts] and then went up for my promotion to full professor. When I went up for full professor, I had published two additional books, one book was called 'Race, Law and Public Policy,' first and second edition, and then I had another book called, 'Returning Home: a Century of African-American Repatriation,' that one was with publishers, I had a contract and, and was subsequently published in November of last year. Then I have a book that's with University of the West Indies Press [University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica], called 'Fighting for Africa,' and that's based about interviews I did with Dudley Thompson, who is a Jamaican attorney, whose is now close to ninety, but he was the lawyer for Jomo Kenyatta, when, in the Mau Mau Rebellion, and his descriptions of going to visit Jomo up in the Hinterlands of Kenya, and seeing him in a cell that's underground and just hearing his voice it's just amazing, I mean, it's just--firsthand interviews that I did with Dudley Thompson, so he represented Jomo, he also represented Julius Nyerere with the founding of Tanzania, he drafted the constitution for Julius Nyerere, so and then the other person is Bill Sutherland, I interviewed Bill Sutherland who is the brother of Murial [S.] Snowden, and he's lived in Africa for like thirty-five years or so.$$I've met, I've met him.$$Yeah. So that book hopefully will come out within the next year, this is University of West Indies Press.$$Um-hm.$$And then I have one other book--$$Go head.$$--That's ca--supposed to come out in June and that's the one where I'm editing 'Nantucket's People of Color,' and that was a result of the James Bradford Ames Fellowship, the program and Bob Hayden [Robert C. Hayden] was our first James Bradford Ames scholar and the scholars go to Nantucket [Massachusetts] and do research on the history of blacks and Cape Verdeans, so we have ten essays in the book, I wrote the introduction and I have an article in there on Patience Cooper, and that's coming out this June [2006].