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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working on the Carnegie-Myrdal Study of the Negro in America

Johnson discusses her work on the Carnegie-Myrdal Study of the Negro in America from 1939 to 1940. In addition to offering her assessment of Gunnar Myrdal and describing her interactions with him, Johnson outlines which sections of the study that she and her husband helped to research and write. Of particular interest are Johnson's recollections of some of the racial tensions Myrdal sometimes fueled because of cultural differences.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Guion Griffis Johnson, May 28, 1974. Interview G-0029-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MARY FREDERICKSON:
Well, when you got to New York and started doing your study were you one of the few historians who . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, I was the only historian.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
So, again you were considered a sociologist.
GUION JOHNSON:
Than a historian, yes. I did the history of racial ideologies . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But they desperately needed someone . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Well, I think they did. (laughter) Gunnar Myrdal once came out to have lunch with me. My office was in one of those delightful research rooms in the library at Columbia University, when I moved out of the Schomberg Collection at 125th and Lennox St. He came out to have lunch with me and to tell me that he was going back to Sweden and that he would have to leave a burden on Guy and me which he was sorry to place upon us. Then he said "Ah, but your field is history, and historians are so wise. You are much wiser than anyone else on my staff because you have been well trained in the field of history." And I smiled because we would say this is a "Gunnarism." If he wanted to exploit you, he began by flattering you highly. (laughter)
MARY FREDERICKSON:
He was asking you to . . . while he was gone . . . administer . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
No, he placed great responsibility on Guy. He wanted me to [complete the idealogy study and go through and pull out the value premises of all the writers who had published in the field of race relations. Which was a big order. And get that done within a month's time. And then from there, I was to help Sam Stouffer who was coming in to take his place as director. Stouffer was a statistician and was coming in to take his place as overall coordinator of the project, in going over the manuscripts that had been turned over by various staff members. And to revise, edit their work. Which was, again, a rather large order because whereas my manuscript was about three hundred pages or more, one staff member had turned in after six months of research a report of twenty-one pages.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Oh my word. You said that yours was the only complete manuscript . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
That met the deadline. I had a deadline of the first of March. Yes, that was the only one that was completed so that he could take it back with him to Sweden. And he had time to read it on the boat. He went on a freighter.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Now he did a lot of the revising over there..?
GUION JOHNSON:
No, he didn't. He just read it. He was never one to do what he called "the nigger work." This is a term that the Swedes have for hard work. He caused quite an incident when he walked into Dr Thomas' office and said "Well, we've got a new young graduate from Howard University we're bringing on to the staff and he can be your little nigger boy, Dorothy." The man was in the office next to them and heard what Gunnar had said. He didn't confront Gunnar Myrdal with his words but went in to Dorothy Thomas' office and raged "If this is the way the director of this program speaks and thinks about Negroes, I'm leaving." And Dorothy had to soothe him and said "Oh, you don't know. I've done research in Sweden and this is just a Swedish expression. And it grows out of the slavery period. This is all that it means. He did not mean this as a term of derogation. It just meant that you would help me with the hard research."
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Gunnar Myrdal from what you've said, had a fairly flamboyant personality.
GUION JOHNSON:
Oh, yes, yes.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Was he married?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes! Alva Myrdal Alva is as distinguished in Sweden as Gunnar is. Has been ambassador from Sweden to India. Has written, and has been in government work. Quite at length.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
She wasn't here?
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, she was here and was doing some writing and quite a bit of lectur- ing. She was a member of the Business and Professional Women's Club in Sweden and she did quite a bit of lecturing for BPW throughout the United States. And she is a very attractive person.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
How long were they here and how long . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
They were here before the staff was assembled, they were here for about a year and he had the office which he later gave to me in the Columbia University library. And was going through reading and formulating his ideas about the Negro in America. And then gathered his staff. Travelled all over the United States interviewing various people. Came here to talk to Guy and me, through Donald Young who was then a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the one who suggested both of us to Gunnar and came here with Gunnar for Gunnar's interview with us. Gunnar had been looking for someone to do the ideological study and had been explaining what he wanted done and said, "I have not found anyone to whom I've talked who even thinks this is important. But Don Young tells me because of your Ante-Bellum North Carolina that you would understand what I'm trying to do. And if you will consider it I will be grateful to you." So I asked him to let me think about it and to write me a statement that I would consider. And again, what would be my salary? (laughter) What will be my status? (laughter) "Well, you'll be on the staff." Later, as you know, I had a little tilt with him, and when he began listing us, my position in the preface to An American Dilemma, he lists me among those who also helped. Because I did insult him when he came here to ask me to go back to Princeton. They were to do the writing. Arnold Rose was to do most of the writing but he wanted some little nigger girls to help him. And he wanted to know if I would go to Princeton and be one of his little nigger girls and I said absolutely not. He said "Well, will you write a synopsis of these works that you did?" You see I did the ideology, the value premises of the leading writers in the area of race relations, the Negro church, and the church and race relations.1 Guy had been assigned the areas of the Negro Church and the Church and Race Relations but his heavy administrative responsibilites made it impossible. I prepared the manuscript and he wrote prefaces to the two reports. Those were three large manuscripts that I did. I don't remember how many pages I did on the value premises . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
. . . four separate . . . of what you want to publish is the racial ideology . . .
GUION JOHNSON:
Yes, the racial ideology, which was approved for publication in 1940 and I wouldn't release it. Don Young and Mr Harrison, Shelby Harrison, were the two leading ones who were on the selection staff——the manuscripts 1. 1 Others on the selection committee were Samuel A. Stouffer, William F. Ogburn. Various specialists were also asked to read manuscripts in the areas of their specialties. It was as a specialist that Louis Wirth read my Ideology manuscript. And they asked me to come to New York for an interview so that they could persuade me to release my manuscript. They said "You'll be sorry, you'll be sorry." And I am. They were right and I was desperately wrong. (laughter)