The Legacy and Moral Resolve of Reverend Johnson
Working under the pen name Lewis Allan, Abel Meeropol wrote “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 as a protest against the horrors of racism, especially the pervasiveness of lynching in the United States. The poem masterfully illustrates the incongruity between the beautiful countryside of the American South and the appalling practice of lynching.
Two years after Meeropol penned the poem, the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday immortalized it as the song, “Strange Fruit.” Despite it’s dark subject matter, Holiday’s haunting rendition became a hit in the late 1930s and has remained an American classic ever since. Time Magazine even declared it the “Best Song of the Century” in 1999.
Meeropol was motivated to write the poem as a response to Lawrence Beitler’s monstrous photo of the August 7, 1930 lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith in Marion, Indiana. The photo shows the brutal hanging of the two African American teenagers at Grant County’s courthouse square with a jeering mob standing by. Beitler worked for ten days to make thousands of copies of the photograph, selling them for 50 cents each. The photo appeared in a few newspapers, but Beitler’s copies were widely circulated around the United States throughout the 1930s. The Indiana historian James Madison wrote that, for some, the photo became “a reassurance of white supremacy and of race solidarity in the face of any perceived black threat.” Meeropol’s reaction to the photo, however, was one of unmitigated horror.
The Equal Justice Initiative defines lynching as a form of racial terrorism, used as “a tool to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation — a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community.” A Tuskegee Institute report found that Americans lynched 4,743 people from 1877 through 1968, 3,446 of whom were African American. Lynching was most common in the south, but it wasn’t unknown in northern states. EJI has identified 18 recorded instances of lynching in Indiana, including the 1930 barbarous murder of Shipp and Smith.
The Marion lynching was one of the darkest days in Indiana’s history. However, we can take solace in the fact that a brave Munsonian played a virtuous role in the story. Following the lynching, John E. Johnson (often as J.E. Johnson), a pastor at Shaffer Chapel in Muncie and a practicing mortician, traveled to Marion and retrieved the bodies of Shipp and Smith. He brought them to his mortuary in Muncie’s Whitely neighborhood for proper embalming, doing so at his own expense.
As Johnson was returning to Muncie with their remains, rumors began circulating that a white mob was plotting to storm into his funeral home and further desecrate the bodies. Hurley Goodall and Elizabeth Campbell wrote in “The Other Side of Middletown” that “Muncie’s Negro community, aided by principled white law enforcement officers, gathered up arms, rallied at nearby Shaffer Chapel Church, and held an all-night vigil…vowing to protect Reverend Johnson and the two bodies.” Johnson was able to complete his work and return Shipp and Smith to their families the next day for burial.
The story of the Marion lynching is well known and told by far better writers than me (see “The Other Side of Middletown,” James Cameron’s “A Time of Terror,” and James Madison’s “A Lynching in the Heartland”). However, I want to contribute to that history by emphasizing the outsized role of Reverend J. E. Johnson.
Johnson, along with those defending from Shaffer Chapel, demonstrated exceptional courage and a moral resolve that speaks as loudly to us in 2020 as it did ninety years ago. Johnson’s brave choice in August of 1930 places him firmly into the pantheon of Muncie’s most heroic residents. His story should be frequently recited so that it’s never forgotten.
History hasn’t recorded many particulars about Reverend Johnson’s life, but enough information exists for me to construct a short biography.
We only have fragmentary details from Reverend J.E. Johnson’s early life, but we know he was born in Norfolk, Virginia on November 4, 1884. His family soon moved to Charleston, West Virginia, where Johnson spent his formative years. In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago and attended the Barnes School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science, and Embalming. Johnson was the only African American in his class and graduated with honors in 1908. From there, he briefly moved to New York City to take an advanced course in mortuary science.
After his studies, Johnson resettled in Springfield, Ohio in 1910 and established a mortuary. In 1913 he moved to Louisville and worked at several funeral homes, gaining a reputation as an exceptional embalmer. Hurley Goodall and J. Paul Mitchell wrote in “A History of Negroes in Muncie” that Johnson supposedly knew a special “embalming secret that preserved bodies for long periods of time.”
Johnson also had an active civic and religious life in Louisville. In 1920 he became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, ordained by the famous activist and AME bishop Archibald J. Carey Sr.
Johnson then began pastoral work in Taylorsville, Kentucky, a position which his obituary indicated that he held for seven years before moving to Muncie. But this can’t be accurate, as Johnson’s name appears in Muncie newspapers in the early 1920s as a local mortician. Records and newspaper articles also show that Johnson began working as a part-time pastor at Shaffer Chapel around the same time.
Regardless, J.E. Johnson was firmly established in Muncie by the late 1920s as a community leader, minister, and undertaker. When he first arrived, Johnson briefly operated a cleaning and pressing business, then opened his own mortuary at the corner of Lowell and Wolfe streets. Within a few years, he moved the business to a brick building in McCulloch Park, before relocating it again to 1414 Highland Avenue. The Johnson Funeral Home was a half-block away and within eyeshot of Shaffer Chapel.
For many years, Johnson was the only Black mortician in the city and his funeral parlor the only one catering to Muncie’s African American community. In the Middletown Digital Oral History project, an anonymous interviewee in 1980 remembered that Reverend Johnson “was one of the best undertakers that ever hit Muncie.” His skill made him quite popular in the Black community but also among Muncie’s white morticians. Goodall and Mitchell wrote that many African Americans in Muncie “believed that white morticians tried hard to get him to reveal his embalming secrets, but he refused to divulge them, although he occasionally did work for white establishments.”
One of Johnson’s obituaries included that “he was on the road to the preservation of bodies in the same manner as employed by the ancients.” Another obit held that “Johnson was well known over eastern Indiana, having developed a method of embalming which preserved bodies for several months.” Even if we cast hyperbole aside, it’s still safe to say that Reverend Johnson was a damn good mortician.
Like many leading men in the early decades of the 20th century, Johnson actively participated in several fraternal organizations. He became a thirty-second degree mason with the Widow’s Son Lodge, a Masonic chapter in Muncie affiliated with Prince Hall Freemasonry. Johnson was also a member of the Odd Fellows, the Ancient United Knights and Daughters of Africa, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Reverend Johnson appears often in the local papers during the 1920s and early 1930s, usually in the obituaries and death reports of Muncie’s African American citizens. In addition, along with notes regarding his preaching at Shaffer Chapel, Johnson’s name frequently occurs in news reports as an advocate for the YMCA and as the chaplain for the Leonard Nichols Post of the American Legion.
Johnson was married twice, first to Harriett E. Abbott (1878–1930). Harriett, like her husband, was a prominent member of the Muncie community. She taught Sunday school at Shaffer Chapel and sang in the church choir. After her death, Johnson married Zuetta Minor (1886–1932). Both Harriett and Zuetta were distinguished members of several sororal organizations.
Sometime in the spring of 1931, Johnson had an automobile accident. His injuries, initially thought to be minor, ended his life on Monday, June 22, 1931. His funeral was held at Calvary Baptist Church the following Thursday, with services led by Reverend A.E. Taylor. He was then buried at Beech Grove Cemetery. After his death, Richard Taylor assumed control of the funeral home and operated it for another 25 years.
None of Reverend Johnson’s obits mention his role in the Marion lynching.
In the early morning on Thursday, August 7, 1930, Marion police arrested Tom Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron, accusing them of shooting Claude Deeter and raping Mary Ball the night before. After intense questioning, the three African American teenagers supposedly confessed to the crimes. By that afternoon, Deeter had died from his wounds.
As the sun set, an angry crowd formed outside of the Marion jail where the three were being held. The police also placed Deeter’s bloody shirt in a window, further enraging those assembled. Despite the efforts of the Grant County prosecutor Harley Hardin, the Grant County sheriff Jake Campbell, the president of Marion’s NAACP branch Flossie Bailey, and Marion’s chief of police Lewis Lindenmuth to calm the situation, the mob stormed the jail, breaking into the cells with sledgehammers and crowbars.
The mob lynched Shipp from the window’s bars and mutilated his body. They moved to the third floor and pulled Smith from his cell. They dragged him onto the courthouse square lawn where he was beaten and hung from a maple tree. Shipp’s body was cut down from the window and hung next to Smith’s. The mob again returned to the jail and pulled out Cameron. However, before the mob could lynch him, several people shouted that Cameron was innocent and he was returned to his cell. A crowd of several thousand lingered for hours. At some point that night, Lawrence Beitler took his photo.
Sheriff Campbell cut down Shipp and Smith the next morning and moved their bodies to the morgue. Fearing an escalation of violence, city officials called in police officers from several nearby communities, the state police, and the Indiana National Guard for additional protection. By that afternoon, Reverend Johnson had arrived in Marion to retrieve Smith’s and Shipp’s bodies. Marion didn’t have any Black morticians at the time and no other funeral home would help. Johnson was called because of his regional popularity as an African American mortician and his willingness to assist, despite the personal risk. Although history does not record his thoughts, given his biography, he surely believed helping was the right thing to do.
According to Hurley Goodall in “A History of Negroes in Muncie,” in Johnson’s absence, “rumors spread throughout the colored community (in Muncie) that gangs of whites were gathering to seize the bodies from Johnson’s mortuary and burn them.” The Muncie Star reported that in the evening of August 8th, a “crowd of about 500 curious persons congregated in the street near (Johnson’s) place, but was dispersed by the police.”
Whether the crowd was motivated by “curiosity” or something worse, their arrival in Whitely understandably caused consternation among Muncie’s African Americans. Every Black community in central Indiana was naturally on edge after the lynching and Muncie wasn’t exactly a city of racial harmony.
As Johnson drove back, he was met at the county border by Delaware County Sheriff Fred Puckett, who escorted him to his funeral home on Highland Avenue. Meanwhile, African American residents, many of them armed, began gathering at Shaffer Chapel to organize an ad hoc defense force against mob violence. The Muncie Police Department even dispatched several officers in support.
Although the accounts differ as to the size and scope of the defense, a participant later recalled “I will never forget Trooper Taylor (a WW1 veteran), he was our leader; he was spacing us up and down Highland Avenue, and anybody who came by, especially any white group in a car, would be stopped and questioned. We thought sure somebody was going to get trigger happy and shoot somebody, but nobody came to get the bodies.”
Whatever the specific circumstances, Johnson was able to complete his work in peace. On Sunday, he returned the bodies to their families in Marion for burial, receiving an escort to the Grant County line by MPD chief Frank Massey.
Reverend Johnson continued his professional work until his untimely death the following spring. James Cameron was found guilty of being an accessory to Deeter’s murder and served four years in prison (he was pardoned in 1991). Cameron later became a prominent Civil Rights activist. In 1988 he opened the Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.
Indiana’s state attorney general, James Ogden, brought indictments against seven mob leaders and impeached Sheriff Campbell. After the acquittal of several defendants, Ogden dropped the charges against the rest.
There’s no delight in telling this story, even when highlighting Johnson’s heroics and Whitely’s defense — the need for their role should have never arose in the first place. Yet the history of Johnson’s noble determination to do right, and the valor shown by those standing vigil, provides us a valuable lesson ninety years later. Their story reminds us that fighting racism requires moral resolve, an internal wellspring of courage, and an understanding that the right path is often the hardest.