Writer and journalist Gerald Johnson (1890-1980) was born in Riverton in Scotland County, and educated at Wake Forest College and the University of Toulouse, France. He started his newspaper career at age twenty by founding, with others, the Thomasville Davidsonian. Subsequently, he worked at the Lexington Dispatch and the Greensboro Daily News until 1924, when he joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina as a professor of Journalism. During his tenure there, he worked with President Harry Woodburn Chase to defeat antievolution bills in the General Assembly.
In 1926, Johnson moved to Baltimore, and spent the next seventeen years working for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Baltimore Sun as a columnist and editorial writer. Despite diametrically opposed personal and political philosophies, he was a longtime friend of H.L. Mencken, the “sage of Baltimore,” and was often called “Baltimore’s second sage.” His liberal and humanist philosophies ultimately caused him to part company with the Sunpapers in 1943, although he did so under the friendliest of terms. For the rest of his life he devoted his energies to freelance writing, briefly holding positions at the New York Herald Tribune and the London Sunday Express.
Between 1925 and 1976, Johnson published dozens of books, including biographies, essays, commentaries on the American scene, two novels, two mysteries, and two trilogies about American history and government written for his young grandson, Peter. He also served as a speech writer for Adlai E. Stevenson’s presidential campaign. Gerald Johnson always regarded himself as a journalist rather than an historian, stating that “the historian writes authoritatively, for posterity; the journalist writes speculatively, for today….The historian is the priest; the journalist is his acolyte; but they are, or should be, both servants of the truth.”
A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Johnson was awarded numerous honorary degrees from universities in Baltimore and his native North Carolina. He also received the DuPont Commentator’s Award, the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1965, the Andrew White Medal from Baltimore’s Loyola College, and the Maryland Civil Liberties Award. Upon his death in 1980, major obituaries appeared in newspapers across North Carolina as well as in The New York Times and the Baltimore Sun, which described him as “a man who never seemed flustered or hurried… .White-haired and with a white mustache, the writer, who was not a large man, looked frail in his later years, but his ideas remained as robust as ever.”
Read an excerpt from Gerald Johnson’s essay, “The Horrible South,” from 1935: