Violet A. Johnson (1870 – 1939)
By Betty Livingston Adams, PhD, Independent Scholar
This biographical sketch was first published on the Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States and appears here by permission. That database is accessible at https://documents.alexanderstreet.com/VOTESforWOMEN
Violet A. Johnson was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1870. Educated in the public schools, she graduated in the eighth grade with a normal school education. In the early 1890s, Johnson moved to Brooklyn, New York, and was employed as a domestic servant. While in Brooklyn, she joined the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, taught Sunday school, and helped found the Young Woman’s Culture Club, a literary reading group. In 1897 she relocated with her white employers to Summit, New Jersey, and shortly thereafter organized a nondenominational Christian Endeavour Society group for African American women and men living and working in the emerging suburb. Within a year the Bible study group was formally recognized as the Fountain Baptist Church, the first African American congregation in the suburb. Johnson was also founder and president of the Missionary Society, president of the Deaconess Board, and head of the Baptist Young People’s Union(BYPU). Acquaintances would later extol her “genius for organization”–religious, civic, social and industrial.
The intersectionality of race, class and gender informed Violet Johnson’s religious and civic response to the singularity of issues confronting African Americans. Locally and regionally, she used her organizational and leadership skills to promote the dignity of black womanhood and to denounce racial discrimination and violence. Johnson was Vice-President of the Woman’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society of the New England Missionary Baptist Convention; Vice-President of the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention; Trustee of the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C.; Vice-President of the New Jersey State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and chair of its Anti-Lynching Department; local and state officer in the Colored Women’s Republican Club and a leader of its Junior Division; and a founder and Vice-President of the Summit NAACP. As a member of the Mayor’s Woman’s Committee during World War I, she organized the Woman in Industry Club and the Girls’ Patriotic League for African American women and girls. At war’s end, she converted them into a permanent institution and alternative YWCA, “The Home Away From Home.”
For Violet Johnson, as for many black church women, the ballot was a weapon of moral defense and social justice. Weeks before the New Jersey special election on suffrage and prohibition in October 1915, black and white women participated in suffrage meetings and parades, house-to-house canvassing and poll watchers training. As the all-male electorate cast votes against both, Violet Johnson stood her post with other poll watchers trained by the Equal Suffrage League.
Following the resounding defeat of the suffrage referendum, New Jersey’s black women heightened their public presence and visibility. They organized the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and formed the Suffrage, Race History, and Education Departments to coordinate their pro-suffrage and anti-discrimination program. They affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and increased their alliance with the Equal Suffrage League, WCTU, and the predominantly male Colored Republican Club. In 1916 the State Federation formalized an agreement with the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, an organization that had heretofore ignored black women, for the inclusion of Federation women on the Executive Board and subvention of their costs for organizers and activities. While national suffrage politics played out differently, in New Jersey the public image of suffrage became one of biracial sisterhood.
Violet Johnson used the exigencies of suffrage and war to make the case for the dignity of black women and against lynching and racial violence. She joined other prominent black and white women speakers at mass suffrage and victory rallies and used Patriotic League Liberty Bond drives and concerts to highlight the incongruity between the loyalty of African American women and the violence of white mobs. Noted for her stump speeches and clear explanation of issues, Violet Johnson had few rivals on the campaign trail. Into the 1930s, her endorsement still mattered.
By August 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, New Jersey’s black women were already an important factor in the political arena. Between August and November, the newly-formed Colored Women’s Republican Club held voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote ‘suffrage’ meetings and mobilized their religious and civic networks to deliver a win for the Republican ticket, including the election of the first African American to the state assembly.
The decision to create a sacred space for African American domestic workers thrust Violet Johnson into public space; suffrage and the fight for social justice for her gender and race provided a clear public role. Violet Johnson died at “The Home Away from Home” on November 24, 1939, still fighting for social justice and an end to racial discrimination and violence.
Adams, Betty Livingston. Black Women’s Christian Activism: Seeking Social Justice in a Northern Suburb. New York: New York University Press, 2016.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010.
Davis, Elizabeth Lindsay. Lifting As They Climb: The National Association of Colored Women. Washington: National Association of Colored Women, 1933.
Dunbar-Nelson, Alice. “A Profile of Violet Johnson.” MS. Alice Dunbar-Nelson Collection, Folder 441, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Del.
“New Honor for Miss Johnson,” July 31, 1909, Indianapolis Freeman, July 31, 1909, n.p.
“Obituary of Violet Johnson,” The Summit Herald and Summit Record, November 24, 1939, 2.
“In the Political Arena: Women’s Work in Essex County, N.J.” Competitor, Vol. 3, no. 4 (June 1921), 34.