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Edward Austin Johnson, born in 1860, was one of eleven children of Columbus and Eliza Johnson, all owned by of Sylvester Smith, a wealthy Wake County slaveholder. Johnson received his earliest education from Nancy Walton, a free black, and later attended a school in Raleigh operated by two white New Englanders. In 1873 Johnson graduated from Atlanta University and began teaching. Shortly thereafter he was named principal of the Mitchell Street School in Atlanta. Johnson returned to Raleigh in 1885 to be the principal at Washington School, where he remained until 1891. During his tenure in Raleigh, Johnson wrote a book entitled A School History of the Negro Race in America (1891), designed to fill the void of educational materials prepared especially for the black schools.
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While working in Raleigh, Johnson enrolled in Shaw University’s law school. He received a bachelor of law degree in 1891 and joined the faculty of the law school two years later. First a professor and later the dean, Johnson stayed at Shaw until 1907. During the same period, from 1899 to 1907, he served as assistant to the United States’ District Attorney for eastern North Carolina. Johnson also established himself as a skilled litigator and real estate magnate. Always active in the Republican Party, Johnson was selected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1892 and 1896.
Johnson moved to New York in 1907 and set up what would become a highly successful law practice in Harlem. He remained active in politics and in 1917 became the first black man elected to New York’s legislature. In 1928 he waged an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. Johnson willed that the bulk of his estate should be used for the care of his daughter during her lifetime. After that, the proceeds of the estate reverted to charitable causes including a music scholarship at Shaw University in the name of his wife and daughter and a trust fund to aid needy blind African American youth in Raleigh. Johnson himself went blind due to cataracts about a decade before his death in 1944.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 288-289—sketch by Willard B. Gatewood Jr.
Who’s Who in Colored America (1940)
Lenwood G. Davis, A Travel Guide to Black Historical Sites and Landmarks in North Carolina (1991)
(Raleigh) News and Observer, January 14, 1954, and July 24, 1944
Will of Edward A. Johnson, New York, written 1942 and probated 1944