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(1922) Wyatt Mordecai Johnson, “The Faith of the American Negro”

Wyatt Mordecai Johnson was born in Paris, Tennessee in 1890. A lifelong educator, Johnson held degrees from a number of institutions including a 1911 A.B. from Morehouse College and a Doctor of Divinity degree from Howard University. Three years after his graduation from Howard he became the first African American president of that institution and remained at the university’s helm for the next thirty four years. In 1922, 32-year old Johnson was selected to be the commencement speaker at Harvard University. He gave as his address, “The Faith of the American Negro.” That speech appears below.

Since their emancipation from slavery the masses of American Negroes have lived by the strength of a simple but deeply moving faith. They have believed in the love and providence of a just and holy God; they have believed in the principles of democracy and in the righteous of the Federal Government; and they have believed in the disposition of the American people as a whole and in the long run to be fair in all their dealings.

In spite of disfranchisement and peonage, mob violence and public contempt, they have kept this faith and have allowed themselves to hope with the optimism of Booker T. Washington that in proportion as they grew in intelligence, wealth, and self-respect they should win the confidence and esteem of their fellow white Americans, and should gradually acquire the responsibilities and privileges of full American citizenship.

In recent years, and especially since the Great War, this simple faith has suffered a widespread disintegration. When the United States Government set forth its war aims, called upon Negro soldiers to stand by the colors and Negro civilians, men, women, and children, to devote their labor and earnings to the cause, and when the war shortage of labor permitted a quarter million Negroes to leave the former slave States for the better conditions of the North, the entire Negro people experienced a profound sense of spiritual release. For the first time since emancipation they found

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