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.
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.
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.