On a typical weekday in 1959, 14-year-old James Johnson woke up before dawn. It was three miles from his aunt’s apartment in Northwest Washington, DC, to the Library of Congress—and he needed to be on time. Wearing a dark suit and tie, Johnson caught the streetcar headed towards Capitol Hill. He usually took advantage of the 45-minute commute to read and study as the rest of the city stumbled out of bed. After arriving at the library, he made his way to the top floor where he joined his classmates at the Capitol Page School just in time for their 6:30 a.m. lessons.
From February 1959 to June 1961, James Johnson attended the Capitol Page School, a one-of-a-kind learning environment for high schoolers working for the House, Senate, and Supreme Court. Johnson was one of the first African-American students admitted to the school, but because of a mix-up—the details of which remain unclear even today—he never received an official appointment as a Page like the rest of his classmates. But Johnson credits his experience at the Page School and working for the House for setting him on the path to a distinguished medical career with the U.S. Navy.
James Avery Johnson Jr. was born on June 17, 1944, on an U.S. Army base in Wilmington, NC, to James Avery Johnson and Avis Ruth (Payne) Johnson. His father worked for the Postal Service after a career in the Army and his mother was a social worker. The family eventually moved to the Midwest and Johnson and his younger brother, Fred, grew up in Chicago, moving between neighborhoods as race and class divisions transformed in the city.
Johnson’s parents tried to brace their sons for the discrimination they would face as Black men in American society. “I was taught from the earliest age that I would always have to work harder and longer than my white colleagues, that I would have less opportunities, and I had to make the most of whatever opportunity I was given because I wasn’t going to be given as many as other people.” Education, his parents told him, was a way to fight that injustice. “Going to college,” he recalled, “was not optional.”
Johnson had wanted to become a doctor since he was six years old. As a teenager, Johnson knew attending a top high school would give him a better chance at getting into a college that would prepare him for medical school. But in Chicago’s segregated school system, schools in Black neighborhoods had fewer resources. “The better schools were in the white neighborhoods,” Johnson remembered. “No ifs, ands, or buts about that in terms of the academic accomplishment.”
So, during his sophomore year of high school, Johnson made a change. His aunt, a journalist in Washington, DC, arranged a House Page appointment for Johnson with Illinois Congressman Barratt O’Hara. Johnson looked forward to serving as a Page—running errands for Members and staff and observing House proceedings. The real enticement, however, was the Capitol Page School located in the Library of Congress. “[It] was like going to a prep school . . . the graduates all got into good [colleges] with good educations,” Johnson explained. “That became the big draw as we learned more about it.”
But when Johnson arrived in Washington, DC, in January 1959, with his mother and brother, House officials told him there had been a mistake and there was no appointment for him. They recommended he go back to Chicago. “We were completely blindsided,” Johnson recalled. As word of the problem traveled around the House, some Members brainstormed ways to amend the situation.
While Johnson waited for more information, the press speculated that southern Members had blocked Johnson’s appointment. While the Supreme Court employed two Black Pages who attended the Capitol Page School, Oswald Glymph and Samuel Williams, the House had not hired a Black Page to work on the floor since the nineteenth century. Only five years earlier, the Supreme Court had declared segregated schools unconstitutional in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and Johnson recalled Washington, DC, as a welcoming city. But if he crossed the Potomac River into Virginia, “signs were up” enforcing segregation, he remembered. And while Johnson saw few “colored only” signs in Maryland, he certainly experienced the sentiment in the attitudes of the people there, he said. Although he had grown up in a northern city, Johnson had experienced this level of discrimination during trips to visit his father’s family in Tennessee. “For me, that part of America is not something I read in a history book. That is something I remember vividly because I lived it.”
Years later, Johnson questioned whether discrimination was the primary reason he had been denied a spot from the Page program. “There may have been some more internal issues within the Illinois delegation,” Johnson reasoned. The press also hypothesized that political rivalries were at work. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, California Representative James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of the Members committed to helping Johnson stay in Washington, had “been making almost daily attacks on the house committee on un-American activities,” a powerful House panel that for years had destroyed the lives and careers of people accused of being communists. This, the Tribune assumed, upset Pennsylvania Representative Francis Walter, chair of both the Un-American Activities Committee and the House Democratic Patronage Committee, which oversaw Page appointments.
But the official reason the House gave for retracting Johnson’s appointment was that there were no vacancies. O’Hara had not cleared it with the right people ahead of time and all 50 spots had been filled. Roosevelt suggested to O’Hara that he introduce a resolution to increase the number of Page positions by one to make room for Johnson. But O’Hara never did, since he knew the Patronage Committee had 15 other youngsters waiting for an opening as well.
Although Johnson had the support of certain Members, he had another, more powerful ally on Capitol Hill. “My aunt,” Johnson said in his oral history, “is a very special aunt.” Ethel Payne was a pioneering Black journalist known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” As the first African-American woman in the White House Press Corps and a contributor to the AFL-CIO’s committee on political education, she was well connected and widely respected. NBC invited Johnson on The Today Show to explain the situation with host Frank McGee on January 28, 1959. “Of course, then that lit up the whole country,” Johnson remembered.
After seeing him on TV, people across the nation wrote letters to Johnson. From a registered nurse living in Colorado, to a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature, and everywhere in between, the letters were overwhelmingly supportive. From Wisconsin he received a dollar, while two different people from Illinois sent him five. He was invited to dinner in Maryland and got a white shirt to wear as part of his Page uniform from someone in Michigan.
But Johnson’s most prized correspondence was a letter written in cramped cursive from a young boy in North Carolina. “I saw you on The Today Show before school this morning. I’d like to congratulate you on becoming a Page,” Joseph P. wrote, using a blue pen and both sides of the page. “You said this morning that some people wouldn’t like you, well no one is liked by every body but you look friendly and nice so if people don’t like you for the color of your skin they are not worthy to be friends.” He continued, “The prejudice in we young people are put there by the older generation. My parents taught me not to be prejudiced and I go to an integrated school. . . . [I] find the colored children in my school are no different from anyone else.” In conclusion, the boy wrote, “If the older people would leave us alone and not teach us to hate we would be fine as we are not born to hate. I hope this letter will make you feel you do have friends and I wish you all the luck in the world.”
Eventually, a coalition of Members came to an arrangement. Representatives Roosevelt, William Ayres of Ohio, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Byron Johnson of Colorado, and Quentin Burdick of North Dakota agreed to hire Johnson to work one day a week in their offices. The combined hours and pay enabled him to attend the Capitol Page School. Roosevelt and Ayers had led the effort, Johnson said, and he assumed Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas signed off on the plan. “They’re the ones who put this together, I’m sure with the blessing of the Speaker because something like this would not happen without the Speaker. That’s just the way things were. I was never told he was part of it, but I know enough to know that it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t given his approval. It just wouldn’t have happened.”
But because he was not technically a Page, Johnson’s days looked a little different than those of his classmates. When morning lessons ended, Johnson did not report to the House Floor with the Pages—in fact, he did not have permission to be on the floor while the House was in session. Instead, he headed towards the House Office Buildings, to whichever office he was assigned to work in that day. Despite missing out on the floor action, the Members kept Johnson busy. He filed copies of documents he made using a first-generation copier called a thermofax, answered phones, and addressed envelopes with an addressograph. “It was a good education for me in terms of learning skills which would benefit me later on,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson also ran personal messages around the Capitol complex. He walked so much that Ebony magazine claimed he alternated between five pairs of shoes throughout the week. But Johnson enjoyed this part of the job. “The Capitol has a lot of catacombs. . . . Knowing where some of those places were to either deliver a message or [be somewhere] the tourists weren’t was exciting.” If he stayed late, he would walk through Statuary Hall—formerly the old House chamber—by himself, his footsteps echoing off the high ceilings and falling into the empty fireplaces.
Johnson kept up to date on his schoolwork as well. “You got to understand there’s always time for study,” he noted. Finding study breaks in his day or moments when he could multi-task became part of his routine, and it paid off. Johnson graduated near the top of his class and won academic awards and scholarships. When it came time to choose a college, he looked for affordable programs that would prepare him for medical school.
The Page School, Johnson said, provided him with both important connections and the building blocks of a pre-med program. “[The science teacher, Mr. Lewis R. Steely] taught a way of approaching things from an analytic, scientific standpoint . . . you had to have your act together. You couldn’t be successful trying to BS somebody. You really had to know what you were doing.” Johnson remembered that lesson came in handy during his formal medical training years later.
Johnson graduated from the Capitol Page School in 1961. His parents, brother, and members of his extended family traveled to DC to watch the ceremony in the Ways and Means Committee room in what is now known as the Longworth House Office Building. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson gave the commencement speech. “Not a lot of high school graduations have the Vice President of the United States as the keynote speaker,” Johnson pointed out.
After earning a degree from Oberlin in Ohio, Johnson graduated medical school at the University of Rochester in New York and went on to complete his internship and residency at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he continued his groundbreaking career as the first African-American student in the surgery program. He joined the Navy in 1966 where one of his first assigned duties was as a medical officer on the USS New Orleans. In 1994, he was the commanding officer of a United Nations hospital fleet in Croatia. He went on to serve at medical centers in California, Washington State, and the District of Columbia. In 2001, he assumed command of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. He retired in 2004.
Johnson had hoped to be the first African-American House Page in the twentieth century—that honor went to another Illinois Page, Frank Mitchell, in 1965—and wished he had been allowed on the House Floor during legislative sessions. But he believed that attending the Page School helped set him on the path to becoming a surgeon. “The Page School is why I got to Oberlin. Oberlin is why I got to the University of Rochester. University of Rochester is why I got to my residency at UCLA. . . . It was all A leads to B leads to C leads to D,” he reflected. “If you give me an opportunity, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to find some way to succeed whatever the challenges or barriers are.”
More than 40 years after his time in the Capitol Page School, Johnson fulfilled a long-delayed dream when his Representative, Congresswoman Susan A. Davis of California, brought him onto the floor while the House was in session.
Sources: “James Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (24 October 2019); Chicago Daily Tribune, 3 February 1959, 21 February 1959; Ebony, May 1960; The Hartford Courant, 29 January 1959; New York Times, 29 January 1959; The Sun (Baltimore, MD), 29 January 1959; The Washington Post, Times Herald, 4 June 1961; Ashlee Anderson, “Ethel L. Payne,” 2018, accessed 5 May 2020, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ethel-payne; United States Navy Biography, “Rear Admiral James A. Johnson Retired,” accessed 5 May 2020, https://www.navy.mil/navydata/bios/navybio_ret.asp?bioID=160.Follow @USHouseHistory