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Washington University Libraries Acquire the Charles Johnson Papers

The Washington University Libraries recently acquired the Charles Johnson Papers, an archival collection of materials related to the life and work of acclaimed author and illustrator Charles Johnson.

Flyer for book-launch party for Charles Johnson, 1988.

The acquisition represents a significant addition to the materials in the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections. Johnson is a celebrated cartoonist, longtime educator, and the award-winning author of fiction, essays, and screenplays. In his work, he often engages with issues of race and cultural identity, incorporating both Eastern and Western philosophy, folklore, spirituality, history, humor, and expert storytelling.

Spanning nearly six decades, the collection brings together manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, artwork, and ephemera and serves as a testament to Johnson’s wide-ranging career as a public intellectual.

A native of Evanston, Illinois, Johnson got his start as a political cartoonist, producing two cartoon collections, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation-Time (1972). He created and hosted the nationally syndicated PBS television show Charlie’s Pad, a series about the craft of cartooning that aired from 1970 to 1980.

Johnson is the author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. His short-story collection The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was nominated for the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Middle Passage, his 1990 novel, won the National Book Award. Johnson was one of a group of 12 Black authors (including Maya Angelou and Rita Dove) commemorated on a series of stamps created by the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation and issued in Ghana and Uganda in 1997.

“Finding the perfect home for 56 years of creative work is a rare opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any author or artist,” Johnson says. “So I feel extremely fortunate that my papers have that home at a school as distinguished as Washington University.”

Johnson was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1998. In 2002, he received an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He is professor emeritus at the University of Washington, where he began teaching in 1976.

“We are thrilled to steward the Charles Johnson Papers,” says Nadia Ghasedi, Associate University Librarian for the Special Collections Services Division at the Washington University Libraries. “Our faculty and students, and the public, will benefit greatly from having access to the work of such an influential writer and illustrator. As an African American, Johnson brings an essential perspective that has been missing from our Modern Literature Collection.” 

Shown above: Some of the Black authors represented on stamps created by the Inter-Governmental Philatelic Corporation and issued by the nations of Ghana and Uganda in 1997. From left: Mari Evans, Rita Dove, June Jordan, Charles Johnson, Maya Angelou, and George Haley (Alex Haley’s brother). Photo by Roland L. Freeman.

The Charles Johnson Papers are currently being processed. They will be included in the Modern Literature Collection and in the collections of the D.B. Dowd Modern Graphic History Library. For more information about the acquisition, please contact Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection/Manuscripts.