The leading African American sociologist of his generation, Charles Spurgeon Johnson was born on July 24, 1893 in Bristol Virginia. He earned a bachelor's degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond and a doctorate from the University of Chicago where he studied under Robert E. Park. His studies were interrupted by World War I. He served in France in the 103rd Pioneer Infantry Division and achieved the rank of sergeant major.
In the aftermath of the 1919 riots he served on the Chicago Commission on Race Relations and co-authored the commission's report, published as the 700-page book The Negro in Chicago. Although critics felt the report did not place adequate responsibility for the riot on the white Jim Crow-era culture of the day, it has prevailed as the classic model of race relations reports.
From 1922 to 1928 Johnson was research director for the National Urban League in New York. During this time he founded and edited the league's Opportunity magazine, at the time a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance. He also edited the anthology Ebony and Topaz, containing the works of the premier poets, essayists and social scientists of the times.
Wanting to return to the South and to academic life, in 1928 he became chairman of the sociology department of Fisk University in Nashville and in 1946 he became Fisk's first African American president. He established the Fisk Institute of Race Relations, the first "think tank" at a historically black university, and published several books on the culture of the South with the most notable being Shadow of the Plantation (1934) and Growing Up in the Black Belt (1940). He was able to attract faculty members such as Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, and Aaron Douglas.
In 1930 Johnson was part of a three-man League of Nations team investigating labor practices in Liberia. He later served as a consultant to President Hoover's Conference on Negro Housing and under President Roosevelt served on the TVA and consulted with the Department of Agriculture on farm tenancy. After World War II he was part of a UNESCO delegation sent to Japan to make recommendations about the country's educational system.
Johnson was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He died in Nashville on October 27, 1956 at the age of 63.