My days often don’t go as planned, but it’s a rare pleasure when the deviation from the plan lands me in a guided tour of the past given by a true Civil Rights era icon. I’ve known David Johnson for many years, first as one of my neighbors and then, funnily enough, after he moved out of my neighborhood as one of my Mom’s neighbors.
Here’s what I knew about David until a couple of years ago: he’s a lovely, courtly, kind, and intelligent gentleman who used to be a photographer. In 2013, though, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., I learned a bit more about him: he was Ansel Adams’ first African-American student and he was a man with a camera at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. He was therefore invited to be an honored part of the anniversary festivities in Washington.
To tell you a bit more about David, let me share with you a brief passage from a longer article at Apogee Photo Magazine, which ran a very nice article about him. This passage picks up after David’s childhood in Jim Crow Florida and after he’d served in the Navy during WWII:
Fueled by his love of photography Johnson broke a racial barrier at age 19 in 1946. Living in Jacksonville, he saw an article in the local paper announcing that Ansel Adams, already a nationally renowned photographer, would head the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Johnson wrote to Adams, requesting permission to join the class and stating that he was a Negro. In Adams’ reply, he admitted Johnson to the school and added that his race did not matter. When Johnson enrolled, Adams welcomed him into his home, where Johnson lived during his photographic studies. Adams counseled him early, “Photograph what you know best.” This wise advice led to Johnson’s enduring and wide-ranging chronicling of African American life.
As the selected accompanying photographs attest, Johnson’s photographs document African American culture of the last six decades, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the poignancy of daily life. His work also celebrates individuals in politics and culture. When employed by a local newspaper, he photographed many celebrities, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the poet Langston Hughes. He also captured entertainment idols, such as Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, blues singer Ruth Brown, and jazz guitarist “T. Bone” Walker.
Equally compelling are Johnson’s images of ordinary African Americans. These speak today—a young boy sitting pensively on a fence; weary civil rights marchers in Washington, DC; a father watching his daughter on a carousel. As forceful are images of a man lounging in a shop doorway, proud deacons at a storefront Baptist church, and children of two races delighted to pose together, oblivious of their different skin colors.
Anyway, I was visiting at my Mom’s retirement community today when I ran into David in the hall. He invited me into the library to join him in looking at the book that his wife wrote about him a few years ago: A Dream Begun So Long Ago: The Story of David Johnson, Ansel Adams’ First African American Student. Standing beside me in the library with the book open before us, David explained to me the story behind each picture, and what a rare and lovely spread of pictures it is.