A renaissance man in Harlem

St Martin’s Episcopal Church, NYC

New York City death records can provide a wealth of genealogical information. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate the death certificate of my husband’s 2nd great-grandmother, Ann Marie Richardson. Ann Marie came to NYC from St Kitts about 1900, with several of her adult children. She was part of the large West Indian population living in Harlem. She died in 1932. The closest thing I have to a death certificate is the record of her burial service. The ceremony was performed through the NY Mission Society, by a minister listed as “J H Johnson”.

Turns out the J H stands for John Howard. John Howard Johnson was the pastor in 1932 at St Martin’s Episcopal Church on 122nd street in Harlem. The majority of his congregation was made up of West Indian immigrants, and St Martin’s was apparently known as the “Caribbean Church”. One of his parishioners was Kittitian Robert Douglas, owner of Harlem’s NY Rens basketball team. Further research showed that John Howard was a man of many talents and interests that reached far beyond his clerical duties.

Howard was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1897. He came to NYC with his family as part of the Great Migration movement north. John Howard Johnson’s father was also an Episcopal minister. John Wesley Howard was born in 1866 in the small town of Meherrin, Virginia. John Wesley’s father, Willis Johnson, was born about 1846 and was listed in the 1870 US Census as a laborer who did not read or write. In the 1880 census, Willis and his family had relocated to Petersburg, Virginia, where he worked in a factory. Willis’s son John Wesley received his education as one of the first students at the Bishop Payne Divinity School in Petersburg. Founded in 1878 with the support of Episcopalian missionaries and the Freedman’s Bureau, the school prepared young African American men for the Episcopalian clergy. John Wesley Howard went on to become the first black professor and warden of the school, before moving north with his family in 1907 to become pastor of St Cyprian’s Episcopal Chapel in New York City.

John Howard Johnson attended Columbia University in the late teens and early 1920s, earning bachelors and masters degrees there before moving on to his seminary studies. At Columbia, he excelled at basketball, with the distinction of being the school’s first African American varsity player. He was one of the top five scorers in his league for the 1919/20 and 1920/21 seasons. He even found time to join the Students Army Training Corps at Columbia, an organization run the by the United States Army to train students for military deployment in World War 1.

John Howard was an early activist in civil rights, as a founder of the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign in the mid-1930s that boycotted white-owned Harlem businesses to force the hiring of black workers. He was appointed commissioner of baseball’s Negro National League in 1947, when he worked to improve conditions for players and fans at a time when Jackie Robinson was breaking the racial barrier of major league baseball. He was appointed as New York City’s first African American police chaplain by Fiorello LaGuardia in 1939. In addition, he was the first person of color to serve on the Borough President’s Advisory Board and as a trustee of the church of St John The Divine. Through his pastoral work, Howard was known to be welcoming and open to people from all faiths, races, and walks of life, even counseling prominent Harlem mob figure Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. John Howard was also a published author of books and a collection of sermons.

He certainly was a man of many talents – a true Renaissance man in Harlem.


  1. St Martin’s Church: A Parish History, Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, 2019
  2. The Archives of the Episcopal Church, John Howard Johnson obituary, 1995
  3. From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship, by David W Dunlap, 2004
  4. Ivy Blackball, Celebrating black history month, Profiles from the ivy league’s black history
  5. Columbia University Military and Veterans Affairs, 20th century student training, 2019
  6. “Don’t buy where you can’t work”: Protest and Riot in Harlem, 1932-1935, by Christie Anderson, Hunter College School of Arts & Sciences Theses, 2019
  7. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, by Neil Lanctot, 2011
  8. Blood relations: Caribbean immigrants and the Harlem community, 1900-1930, by Irma Watkins-Owens, 1996
  9. The Real First Citizen of Harlem, by Lawrence Hogan, 2007
  10. Encyclopedia of African American religions, edited by Larry G Murphy, J Gordon Melton, and Gary L Ward, 2013
  11. St Stephens Episcopal Church History, 2019
  12. Harlem from the Rectory Window, by John Howard Johnson, published 2009

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