The Unsung Doyenne of the Halfway House
On the corner of S and 15th Street is a pretty grey-and-white house that once belonged to the woman who was responsible for one of the most active intellectual “salons” in the black community in the 1920s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. This is the house of Georgia Douglas Johnson, also known as “Halfway House” because, as she said, “I’m half between everyone and everything, and I bring them all together.” She was a wife and mother of two, but she also was a prolific writer and catalyst of action and activism in the black community. She received degrees in music from Oberlin College and the Cleveland College of Music, but moved back to Georgia where she became an Assistant Principal. There she met her husband, who was a lawyer and government worker, and they moved to DC in 1910. After her husband died in 1925, she got a job at the Department of Labor to support her two sons, but continued writing a column for the Crisis Magazine, traveling for poetry readings, and bringing together like-minded people.
She started writing in her 20s and she published her first book of poetry in 1918 "The Heart of a Woman," and "Bronze" in 1922. She started her salon in 1921, and leveraged her proximity to Howard University to bring together some of the most keen and influential minds in the black community, including Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and Alain Locke, philosopher and coiner of the term “New Negro Movement.” These gatherings became known as the “Saturday Nighters Club.” Every Saturday for most of the roaring-twenties, she would host a revolving set of black playwrights, poets, activists from inside and outside DC. It was Jean Toomer, author of the book of stories and poems "Cane," who convinced her to start it. At the time he did not see a place where creatives of the day could gather and just talk about their ideas and their writings. Over her offerings of cake and wine, such names as Toomer, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Dr. Woodson and Alain Locke would talk about current affairs, literature, poetry, and would sometimes critique each others work. She was described by her guests as being exceedingly welcoming, kind, gracious, and thoughtful. Her salon would have rivaled any others in white society for the richness of the creativity that ran through that place.
Through these meetings she also developed a reputation for having impeccable taste in writing. Her opinion was sought after by writers new and old. She enjoyed inviting undiscovered talent into the salon to evaluate their potential. As someone who saw the value in creating connections, she would introduce these novices to more experienced and recognized writers, hoping to give them a boost to their careers. She also paid close attention to the caliber of the discussions at her house. If someone was deemed too boring, they would stop receiving invitations to the Saturday night gatherings. She considered these meetings to have a purpose, to promote and energize the burgeoning African-American literary culture. She herself was one of the most published women of the Harlem Renaissance era, with four books of poems total, six plays, and 36 song lyrics.
As a writer she had renown but still had to support herself and her sons through her work with the Federal government. She worked very hard to put both of her boys through college, and then Medical and Law School. Unfortunately, she lost her job at the Department of Labor in the 1930s, but she persisted supporting herself through odd jobs and clerical work. Her writing didn't seem to make her much money, possibly the result of her not only being a woman, but a black woman in a pre-Civil Rights America. Her last work, "Share My World," was published in 1962, and she passed away of a stroke in 1966. Her body of writing was much larger than what has been published, according to a catalogue of her writings that she compiled herself. Unfortunately much of it seems to have been lost, either through being misplaced or unwittingly disposed of by someone after her death. Nonetheless, she is still the most published woman of the Harlem Renaissance.
I end my Harlem Renaissance in DC tour with her, because of all of the people on the tour I think she gets the least recognition in history, and I want her to be last impression, the last story that sticks with people. She was more than a writer, she was a mentor and recognized the power to bring great minds together for the overall benefit of the community.
Shameless plug: Don't forget, all this month Off the Mall Tours is offering a 10% discount on tickets for the Harlem Renaissance in DC and Historic Alleyways tours, in honor of Black History Month. Promo code is BHM2021. Want to hear more stories like this? Grab your tickets now!
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