Past: Columbia Athletics Communications
BLACK HISTORY MONTH—The impact of John Howard Johnson goes far beyond his contribution to the Columbia men’s basketball program. Of course, it can not be underestimated that Johnson was the first black American to play in the Lions varsity squad and one of the leading strikers in the Eastern Intercollegiate League. But it was his work after leaving Morningside Heights that made him a true Hall of Famer outside of athletics.
Called a true Renaissance man in Harlem, Johnson finished in the top five in league points during both the 1919-20 and 1920-21 seasons and was one of the foremost forwards of his time. Some of his best appearances with Columbia included scoring in a 28-25 victory over Dartmouth in 1920 and pouring in 11 in a 15-14 victory over CCNY in 1921. He also found time to join the Students’ Army Training Corps, an organization run by US Army and was created to train students for military deployment during World War I.
Two years after receiving an anthropology degree from the university, Johnson became an ordained pastor and became one of the most respected civil activists in Harlem.
Johnson founded St. Martin’s Episcopal Church on Lenox Avenue in 1928, which was declared a landmark in New York in 1966 and built its congregation for more than 3,000 people in the late 1940s. Many of St. Martin’s parish consisted of Caribbean immigrants. A lifetime New Yorker, Johnson devoted his time to the integration of people into his various communities.
In 1935 he was appointed a member of the Emergency Relief Bureau and was named the New York Police Department’s first black chaplain by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1939. He was also the first colored person to serve on the President’s Advisory Board and as steward of St. John The Divine Church. . Through his pastoral work, Howard was known for being welcoming and open to people of all religions, races and walks of life, even advising the eminent Harlem mob figure Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. Johnson was also a published author of books and a collection of sermons.
In 1947 he was appointed commissioner of the baseball Negro National League. He worked to improve the conditions for players and fans and he focused on legitimizing the league and its players by trying to eliminate violence on the field and address fan behavior. He was in office at a time when Jackie Robinson broke the major league baseball barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Johnson came to New York City with his family as part of the Great Migration movement north. His father was also a bishop.
Johnson died at his home in Long Island at the age of 98 in 1995.
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