The auditorium of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University was filled with students and other members of the Vanderbilt community, members of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, including Senior Bishop Lawrence L. Reddick, and members of the Johnson family, all of whom gathered to hear reflections on the life and legacy of the Black Cultural Center’s namesake, Bishop Joseph A. Johnson, Jr.
The event was a panel discussion on the life and legacy of Bishop Johnson that featured scholars and religious leaders. Panelists included Bishop Paul Stewart, retired senior bishop of the CME Church; Dr. Evelyn Parker, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Perkins School of Theology; Dr. Riggins Earl, Professor of Ethics and Theology at the Interdenominational Theological Center; and Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver, JD, granddaughter of Bishop Johnson and president of the Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project. Dr. Emilie Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, served as moderator of the panel. Dr. Frank Dobson, Director of the Black Cultural Center, introduced the panel.
Rev. Johnson-Oliver, who is currently writing a biography of Bishop Johnson, reflected on his early life and ministry. Dr. Earl then gave reflections on Bishop Johnson’s experiences and his legacy as the first African American student at Vanderbilt. Bishop Stewart reflected on Bishop Johnson’s legacy as a bishop in the CME Church. Dr. Parker offered reflections on growing up as a youth in the episcopal district in which Bishop Johnson presided, along with his scholarly legacy. A highlight of the discussion came after a question by Kevin Brown, a Vanderbilt Divinity School student, who asked about Bishop Johnson as a husband and father. From the audience, Patricia Johnson-Powell, daughter of Bishop Johnson, gave a heart-warming reflection of an egalitarian husband who shared in household responsibilities and regularly affirmed her as his “baby girl.” The panel also addressed questions about Bishop Johnson’s books and their significance today.
[Video of panel discussion is forthcoming.]
Bishop Johnson was the first African American to be admitted to Vanderbilt University. He went on to become the first African American to graduate, receiving the Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1954, and the first to receive the Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1958. In 1971, he was elected to the Vanderbilt Board of Trust and two years later preached at the Divinity School’s Cole Lectures. Bishop Johnson was also the 34th Bishop of the CME Church, the first President of Phillips School of Theology, and Professor of New Testament at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA.
In 1984, the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt was dedicated in his honor. In 2013, the Bishop Joseph Johnson History Project was started by Bishop Johnson’s granddaughter, Rev. Cynthia Johnson-Oliver.
The panel discussion marked the 100th anniversary of Bishop Johnson’s birth and the 60th anniversary of Bishop Johnson’s first graduation from Vanderbilt. The Black Cultural Center is also celebrating its 30th anniversary. At an awards ceremony later that evening, Bishop Johnson posthumously received the Distinguished Alumni award conferred by Vanderbilt Divinity School.