James Johnson

In 1959, James Johnson accepted an invitation to become a House Page. But when he arrived in DC, House officials retracted his appointment, telling him all the positions were filled. That episode focused national attention on the 15-year-old high school student. Five Representatives eventually agreed to hire him as a messenger for their offices, allowing him to become one of the first African Americans to attend the Capitol Page School.

Featured Video

"The Big Draw"

James Johnson explains why he wanted to attend the Capitol Page School.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Abstract & Transcript

In January 1959, Chicago high school sophomore James Johnson accepted an invitation to become a Page for the U.S. House of Representatives. When he arrived in Washington, DC, however, House officials retracted the appointment, a decision that focused national media attention on Johnson. Five House Members agreed to hire him as a messenger in their Capitol Hill offices, allowing him to work for Congress and attend the Capitol Page School until his graduation in 1961.

In this oral history, Johnson discusses the race and class divisions in his childhood neighborhood in Chicago, as well as the time he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a local church. He remembers his parents emphasizing education as a way to overcome racial inequality, telling him at a young age that he needed to work harder than his white peers to receive the same opportunities.

Johnson describes receiving national press attention when he first arrived in Washington, DC, including an appearance on NBC’s The Today Show. He recalls moving in with his aunt, journalist Ethel Payne, and attending a DC public school while the House found a way for him to attend the Page School. He notes the different public attitudes about race in Chicago versus the Washington metropolitan area with its more overt segregation; but he also remembers being able to connect with his Page School classmates. He explains a typical day working in the House and the ways his position differed from a traditional Page. Johnson cites his time on the Hill as providing the foundation for his medical career as a Navy surgeon.

Biography

James Avery Johnson Jr. was born on an U.S. Army base in Wilmington, NC, on June 17, 1944, to James Avery Johnson and Avis Ruth (Payne) Johnson. His mother was a social worker and his father worked in a post office after serving in the U.S. Army. His family moved to the Midwest and Johnson grew up in Chicago with his younger brother, Fred.

During his sophomore year of high school in 1959, Johnson’s aunt, the pioneering African-American journalist Ethel Payne, helped him secure an appointment as a House Page through Illinois Congressman Barratt O’Hara. When he arrived at the U.S. Capitol, however, House officials claimed that all vacancies in the Page program were filled, denying Johnson the opportunity to become the first African-American Page in the 20th century. Five Representatives joined together to devise a specialized arrangement. They each hired Johnson as a Page-like messenger for their offices, which allowed him to work on Capitol Hill and attend the Page School. Johnson lived with his aunt and joined his peers each morning for classes but did not have permission to go on the House Floor like his classmates. Instead, he worked in a different Member office each day of the week, running messages and assisting with office tasks.

Johnson graduated from the Page School in 1961 and subsequently earned degrees in biology and chemistry from Oberlin College in Ohio. He graduated from medical school at the University of Rochester in New York and completed his internship and residency at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was the first African-American student in the surgery program.

Johnson joined the U.S. Navy in 1966. He reached the rank of Rear Admiral. 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 Washington State, the District of Columbia, and California. In 2001, he assumed command of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, California. Johnson retired from the military in 2004 and continues to live in San Diego.

Video

Neighborhoods of Chicago

James Johnson describes the race and class divisions that transformed Chicago neighborhoods and school boundaries in the 1950s.
James A. Johnson Jr, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Family Rules

James Johnson shares the lessons he learned from his parents at an early age.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

James Johnson remembers hearing Dr. King speak at a church near his home in 1956.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

"The Big Draw"

James Johnson explains why he wanted to attend the Capitol Page School.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Page Appointment Retracted

James Johnson recalls his confusion when his Page appointment fell through.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Media Attention

James Johnson remembers his television appearance on The Today Show to explain his predicament.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

DC Public School

James Johnson recalls the public school he attended while the House sorted his employment.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Ethel Payne

James Johnson describes his influential aunt.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Office Page

James Johnson explains the arrangement created by a group of Members that allowed him to attend the Capitol Page School.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

"Within a Few Microns of Skin"

James Johnson details finding common ground with his fellow students.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Not Allowed on the House Floor

James Johnson describes the different responsibilities he had compared to floor Pages and the moment he finally went on the House Floor.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

"That's How I Got to Oberlin"

James Johnson recalls how Ohio Congressman Charles Moser helped him attend his top-choice college.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

"Being a Pioneer"

James Johnson describes the responsibility that comes with being a career pioneer.
James Johnson, Page, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded October 24, 2019 Deed of Gift

Images & Artifacts

James A. Johnson Jr.
<i>James A. Johnson Jr.</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonj_portrait.xml
After arriving at the Capitol in January 1959, James Johnson learned he would not receive the Page appointment he arranged with his Representative.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
New Page
<i>New Page</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonj_steps.xml
James Johnson posed for a photo on January 28, 1959, the day he arrived in Washington.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Signing Up for Classes
<i>Signing Up for Classes</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonj_teacher.xml
James Johnson met with Henry DeKeyser, the principal of the Capitol Page School, to sort out his classes.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
James Johnson Jr. Attends Page's School
<i>James Johnson Jr. Attends Page's School</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_johnsonj_classroom.xml
Five Representatives hired Johnson (right) to work in their offices one day a week, allowing him to attend the Capitol Page School, located in the attic of the Library of Congress.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object