Vernon Johns

Vernon Johns
Born (1892-04-22)April 22, 1892
Darlington Heights, Virginia
Died June 11, 1965(1965-06-11) (aged 73)
Washington, D.C.
Alma mater Oberlin Seminary, University of Chicago
Movement African-American Civil Rights Movement
Religion Baptist
Spouse(s) Altona Trent
Children Six children

Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) was an American minister at several black churches in the South. He is best known as the pastor 1947–52 of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was succeeded by Martin Luther King Jr. Johns was widely known in the black community across the South for his profound scholarship in the classics, his highly controversial sermons, his insulting manner toward his audiences, his extreme eccentricities, and his repeatedly being fired from prestigious positions. [1]


Johns was born in Darlington Heights, Prince Edward County, Virginia. Three of his grandparents were slaves. His paternal grandfather had been hanged for killing his master. Johns maternal grandfather was a Mr. Prince, a white man. Prince had a long-standing relationship with Johns maternal grandmother, and served prison time for killing a white man who tried to rape her. After her mother died, Johns' mother Sallie Prince was raised by the white wife of her father, although the fact that he was actually her father was not generally acknowledged.[2]

In 1915, Johns graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary and College.[3] He then attended the Oberlin Seminary, where he studied with classmate Robert M. Hutchins.[4] While at Oberlin, Johns was highly respected by both his classmates and the faculty and was chosen to give the annual student oration. After graduating from Oberlin in 1918, he attended the University of Chicago's graduate school of theology.[5]

After studying at the University of Chicago, Johns moved between various congregations in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In 1926, he was the first African-American to have his work published in Best Sermons of the Year.[6]

In 1927, Johns married Altona Trent. She was a pianist and music teacher who became a professor at what is now Alabama State University. In 1929–33 he was president of Lynchburg’s Virginia Theological Seminary and College. He was unable to stabilize the school's finances and was forced to resign. He returned to his family farm for several years and in 1937 Johns was called again as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1941, Johns returned to Lynchburg as pastor of Court Street Baptist Church, but was quickly forced to resign by the congregation and returned to the farm.[7]

It was due to his wife's connection to ASU that she was able to influence Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to hire Johns as pastor in October 1948.[8] On one occasion, he paid his bus fare and was directed to the back, but refused to sit there and demanded his money back;[9] he ruffled some feathers among his middle-class congregation by selling his farm produce from outside the church building.[10] In May 1953, he was forced to resign as pastor in Montgomery. He returned to his family farm, where he spent the rest of his life.[11]

Vernon Johns died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C. on June 11, 1965 at age 73.


A television film was made in 1994 called Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story, written by Leslie Lee and Kevin Arkadie, based on an unpublished biography by Henry W. Powell of The Vernon Johns Society. The motion picture was directed by Kenneth Fink and stars James Earl Jones in the title role. Former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has long expressed an interest in African-American history, was the film's co-executive producer.[12]

David Anderson Elementary School in Petersburg, Virginia, was renamed Vernon Johns Middle School; in 2009 it became the junior high school for the city school system.

See also


  1. Taylor Branch. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988) pp 7-25, 109-10, 339-40
  2. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), p. 7
  3. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle entry on Johns
  4. Oberlin article on Johns
  5. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1998) p 9 .
  6. Oberlin biography of Johns
  7. Ralph Luker, "Johns the Baptist," online
  8. Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 6-7
  9. Wally G. Vaughan, ed. (1999). Reflections on our Pastor. Richard W. Wills. Dover: Majority Press. pp. 45–47. ISBN 9780912469348.
  10. bio of Johns
  11. Ralph Luker, "Johns the Baptist," online
  12. Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5.

Further reading

External links

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