Helene Johnson

1906 –

Helene Johnson was born in Boston to Ella Benson Johnson of Camden, South Carolina, and George William Johnson of Nashville. Johnson never knew her father, and her mother was a domestic worker. Johnson’s maternal grandparents, Benjamin Benson and Helen Pease Benson, for whom Helene was named, were born into slavery in South Carolina. Johnson was the first cousin of fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West. The cousins grew up together in Boston’s Brookline section and spent summers in Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard. Johnson later became the inspiration for at least one character in West’s fiction. Johnson attended Boston University and Columbia University. 

Johnson became known as one of the youngest poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She published poems in the short-lived Fire!! magazine, Opportunity, the Messenger, the African-American magazine Saturday Evening Quill, and Vanity Fair. Additionally, Johnson’s work was anthologized in Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 1976); American Negro Poetry (Hill and Wang, 1963); The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949 (Doubleday, 1951), edited by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes; and James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922). She released around two dozen uncollected poems during her lifetime. Robert Frost once praised her for her submission of the poem “The Road” for an Opportunity magazine contest in 1926. Johnson published her final poems in the mid-1930s in Challenge: A Literary Quarterly. She then became crippled by osteoporosis and never again published. During her literary career, Johnson received prizes and recognitions from the Boston Chronicle and Opportunity. 

Helene Johnson died on July 7, 1995.