William Edward Johnston Biography

William Edward Johnston




African-American artist William Edward Johnston was born in Salem, Ohio on June 12,1917 to John Matthew and Lena Johnston. His father's first wife, Clara, died of TB and his two step-brothers and sister were put into the foster system, which, at the time were legalized slavery for young black children. William's mother, Lena, reunited the family when she married his father. William became an orphan during the depression when both of his parents died, and he was sent to foster care. At the encouragement of English artist Frank Webb, he began to study painting as an early teen. He ran away from the foster care system at age 16 and began working as an artist. In his youth Johnston began earning a living as a painter in Brooklyn, New York and marquee designer in Cleveland, Ohio, earning beween $3.00 and $18.00 a week.

In 1942 he joined the Air Force and finished his high school degree at Tuskegee Air Base in Alabama. He trained as an airplane mechanic for a year and, in 1943 he began aviation cadet training. He became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, one of over 450 black pilots to fight in World War II under the command of Col. Benjamin Davis, Jr.

After the war he married Hattie Frazer, a registered nurse, and settled in Auburn, Alabama, working at Auburn University as a clerk. Encouraged by an art professor at the university he decided on a formal art education and earned his BS degree at Alabama State College in 1963 and his MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, at age 53. He did post graduate work at Southern Illinois University and American Art Clay College. His media included painting, mosaic and printmaking.

In 1963 Johnston joined the art faculty at the Mississippi Valley State College in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a historically black university (as of 1974) located in Leflore County, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, eventually becoming the head of the School of Art. Under his leadership the National Association of Schools of Art accredited the school, the first in the state of Mississippi.

In 1975 Johnston was chosen as the Outstanding Educator of America. He exhibited at the Huntsville Museum of Art “Black Artists / South” in 1979, one of the most substantial exhibitions of Black artists of the '70s, curated by Ralph M. Hudson.

Johnston exhibited widely, including Atlanta Univ., 1951, 1956-57, 1963; Tuskegee Inst., 1960 (award); Tribune Tower, Chicago, 1962; Stillman College, 1963; Delta State College, MS, 1967; Frontal Images Municipal Gal., Jackson, MS, 1967; Masur Mus., Monroe, LA, 1969; Rochester Inst. Tech., 1970; Univ. Cincinnati, 1970; CI, 1971; Haiti Gal., Rochester, NY, 1972; 100 Am. Craftsmen Show, Lockport, NY, 1972; 15th Ann. Delta Art Show, 1972.

After retiring to tend his extensive flower gardens at age 65, William Edward Johnston died in Itta Bena, Laflore County, Mississippi on September 17, 2001.