- NAME: Vernon Johns
- OCCUPATION: Civil Rights Activist, Pastor
- BIRTH DATE: April 22, 1892
- DEATH DATE: April 11, 1965
- Did You Know?: In 1926, Vernon Johns became the first African-American religious leader to have a sermon published in the book Best Sermons.
- EDUCATION: Boydton Institute, Oberlin College, Virginia Theological Seminary, University of Chicago
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Darlington Heights (Prince Edward County), Virginia
- PLACE OF DEATH: Washington, D.C.
- Full Name: Vernon Neapolitan Johns
- AKA: Vernon Johns
Best Known For
A brilliant thinker, Vernon Johns was a pastor and activist who was the predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
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Born in Darlington Heights, Virginia, on April 22, 1892, Vernon Johns earned his divinity degree from Oberlin College. Having an unorthodox style that merged his rural upbringing with intellectual acumen, he became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, highlighted by his community activism and challenges to the status quo. Succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr., Johns died on April 11, 1965.
"It is a heart strangely un-Christian that cannot thrill with joy when the least of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars."
"In the humblest routine, we must discover our task as part of the transforming enterprise of our Heavenly Father."
"I got your letter Dean Friske. But I want to know do you want students with credits or students with brains?"
[Regarding his seminary admission to Oberlin.]
Vernon Neapolitan Johns was born in Darlington Heights, part of Prince Edward County, Virginia, on April 22, 1892, with a complex multiracial family history. Johns worked on the farm growing up and was a voracious reader and learner of Western classical thought, attending the Boydton Institute and Virginia Theological Seminary and College.
Though allegedly expelled from his previous institution, Johns went on to attend Oberlin College's seminary and became the top student of his class, giving the famed Memorial Arch talk and graduating in 1918 with his divinity degree. He took on a variety of teaching and ministry work over the ensuing decades, becoming one of the most well-known African-American religious leaders of the era who was also out of the box, having a passion for traveling without being beholden to his educational background.
In 1927, Johns wed Altona Trent, a classical pianist, teacher and scholar who would also author music books. The couple went on to have three sons and three daughters.
In 1948, after a mesmerizing trial sermon, Johns became the 19th pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of his four years there, Johns displayed a challenging, at times volatile temperament that put him at odds with much of the congregation, whom he took to task for often being too invested in social status.
Johns could speak and read multiple languages, being particularly fond of Greek, and was known to recite lengthy literary and scriptural passages at will as he had a photographic memory. His intellectual prowess, including a love of poetry and military histories, was balanced for a love of working the land, and he at times appeared on the pulpit in outdoorsy attire or outside of church hawking produce and food stuffs.
Johns was a community activist as well, helping African-American girls who had been raped by white men accuse their attackers to the authorities. He was also involved in desegregation work, refusing to comply with racist bus policies and at one point ordering a sandwich and drink from a white restaurant, being chased out practically by gunpoint. His sermons could be in-your-face as well, with titles connecting to oppressive, violent social dynamics faced by African Americans.
His niece, Barbara Johns, who lived with his immediate family for a time, was also at the helm of one of the suits involved in the historical 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
With a tumultuous history with Dexter Avenue and having already put in for his resignation multiple times, John's fifth resignation was accepted by the church in 1953. He was eventually succeeded there by Dr.
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Browse our collection of African-American civil rights activists who were pioneers in their industries, including Vernon Johns, Charles H. Houston, Madam C.J. Walker and John Mercer Langston. Explore full biographies, photo galleries, videos and more, only at Biography.com.
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African-Americans have a long history of activism in America, from fighting for the right to vote to pushing for integrated public spaces. Activists like Stokely Carmichael organized freedom rides, James Meredith fought to integrate blacks and whites at the University of Mississippi, and Rosa Parks instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These protests were often legal and nonviolent, and made a powerful impact on civil rights in the United States. With the help of activists like these—and many others—the country slowly worked to acknowledge the basic rights and contributions of African-Americans. Activists outisde of the U.S. include Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who have fought against apartheid in South Africa. Learn more about the many black activists who fought against the odds in order to achieve equality.
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