Lewis Harrison (L. H.) Johnston (1880?–1919)

Lewis Harrison Johnston was a physician, surgeon, and wealthy businessman. He was a member of the Negro Business League and the State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association of Oklahoma. He and his three brothers were killed by a posse in 1919 during the Elaine Massacre.

Lewis Harrison Johnston, known as L. H., was born on July 4, probably in 1880, in either Arkansas or Ruston, Louisiana, to Lewis Johnston Jr. and Mercy Ann Taborn Johnston. In the 1880 census, Johnston was living in Vaugine Township in Jefferson County with his parents and siblings. His place of birth was listed as Arkansas, and his age was listed as one. In 1900, Johnston was listed as living in Ward 3 in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) with his parents and siblings. His date of birth was given as July 1879, but on his September 12, 1918, World War I draft registration card, his date of birth was listed as July 4, 1880.

On July 22, 1907, he married Zelia Perry, aunt of writer Lorraine Hansberry, in Maury County, Tennessee. They had two children: Louise Johnston, who married jazz musician Duke Groner, and John Thomas Johnston.

Johnston attended Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and then studied at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. While there, he assisted Dr. J. T. Wilson, chief surgeon at the Wilson Infirmary in Nashville, in the surgery of a woman who had been suffering for years from painful abdominal swelling—then termed as calcareous degeneration but now referred to as lithopedion or “stone baby.” The stone baby was placed on display at the Demoville Drug Company in Nashville. In 1909, Johnston graduated from Meharry.

In 1911, Johnston was living in Red Bird, Oklahoma. In February 1912 at his home in Red Bird, a man stabbed him in the back three times and severed his jugular vein. The man, who owed Johnston money, had given him some property as collateral, and Johnston refused to return the items until he was paid. Prompt medical attention saved his life.

By June 1914, Johnston was owner and chief surgeon at the Johnston Sanitarium in Coweta, Oklahoma.

In March 1918, his wife died, and he was left with two young children.

He was a guest speaker in February 1919 at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University), at which the subject of lynching was discussed.

On October 2, 1919, while Johnston was returning home from hunting with his brothers—Dr. D. A. E. Johnston, Gibson Allen Johnston, and Leroy Johnston—they were all arrested in Elaine (Phillips County). Sources vary as to the events that followed, but Johnston and his brothers were shot by posse members, and their bodies were dumped on the side of the road. Some black newspapers, including the Crisis and Tulsa World, also reported that the bodies of the Johnston brothers were held until their mother, Mercy Johnston, paid the money in order to bury her sons. Although some books and black newspapers claim that the Johnston brothers were buried in Little Rock (Pulaski County), according to the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, the Arkansas Democrat, and the Arkansas Gazette, their bodies were brought back to their childhood hometown of Pine Bluff for their funerals and burial.

For additional information:
Beckford, Geraldine Rhoades. Biographical Dictionary of American Physicians of African Ancestry, 1800–1920. Cherry Hill, NJ: Africana Homestead Legacy Publishers, 2011.

“Johnstons from Pine Bluff.” Arkansas Democrat, October 3, 1919, p. 7.

“Mother Ransoms the Bodies of Her Slain Sons: Forced to Pay for Bodies before Funeral Services Could Be Held.” Dallas Express, November 1, 1919, pp. 1, 9.

“Negro Doctor of Coweta Killed in Arkansas.” Coweta Times-Star, October 9, 1919, p. 1.

“Wealthy Negro Killed: One Doctor and Dintist [sic], Brothers, Lose Lives in Race War.” Dallas Express, October 18, 1919, p. 13.

Gwendolyn L. Shelton
Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Last Updated: 07/24/2019