Fenton Johnson was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1888. He is regarded as a forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson was born to Elijah, a railroad porter and one of the wealthiest African American Chicagoans, and Jesse (née Taylor). Johnson enrolled at the University of Chicago and attended both Northwestern University and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Johnson had plays produced by the Old Pekin Theatre in Chicago when he was nineteen and self-published three poetry collections: A Little Dreaming (The Peterson Linotyping Company, 1913), Visions of the Dusk (Trachtenberg Co., 1915), and Songs of the Soil (Trachtenberg Co., 1916). In the 1920s, Johnson founded, contributed to, and edited small literary magazines, including Champion, Correct English, and The Favorite Magazine. He was also an early contributor to Poetry magazine. Additionally, Johnson published a collection of short stories, Tales of Darkest America, and a collection of essays, For the Highest Good, both published by the Chicago-based The Favorite Magazine in 1920. Johnson’s work was anthologized in James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922) and Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927). His literary output largely stopped during the 1930s, though he did work with fellow Chicago-based African American writers, including Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, on the Works Project Association’s “Negro in Illinois” program. His 42 WPA Poems, part of the program, were published posthumously. A Wild Plaint, an unpublished manuscript written in 1909 and sent to Doubleday, Page & Company as nonfiction, was discovered in 2017 and is now housed in the Harry Ransom Center’s Christopher Morley collection at the University of Texas at Austin. A Wild Plaint is the “diary” of Aubrey Gray, a young African American from Chicago who commits suicide.
Aside from his writing career, Johnson briefly taught English at Louisville State University. He was also special editor to the Eastern Press Association and acting drama critic for the New York News.
Johnson died on September 17, 1958.