African American History Month: Learn about Ernest Houston Johnson

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Johnson, seated on far left, was in Stanford's pioneer graduating class. (Photo courtesy Stanford Magazine)

Ernest Houston Johnson was the first black student admitted to Stanford University and a member of the prestigious college’s first graduating class in 1895. But his story was unknown for more than 100 years, until a student uncovered the photo of Stanford’s first football team.

Johnson was born in 1871 just outside Roseville and grew up in a home near Seventh and M streets in Midtown. His father, Beverly, a local caterer, was an intellectual who enjoyed the plays of William Shakespeare, which he discovered while working as a valet for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Although Beverly Johnson had only a third-grade education, he fought for his children to be taught at the all-white elementary school rather than the segregated school that most African-American children attended at the time. Ernest’s sister was turned away from admittance; Ernest was accepted.

Ernest Johnson went on to graduate from Sacramento High School in 1891. He applied to UC Berkeley (where he was accepted) and Stanford. He didn’t hear back from Stanford.

Beverly Johnson knew Jane Stanford (who co-founded the university with her husband, Leland) through his catering business. Eventually, Jane Stanford contacted the university’s president about Ernest. Soon after, Ernest received his acceptance. 

After graduating in 1895 with a bachelor’s in economics, Ernest Johnson attended Stanford Law School. A few years later, he contracted tuberculosis and died. He is buried in Sacramento with his Stanford diploma.

But at the school he was largely forgotten until a student was asked to research Stanford’s first African American graduate. The student found the football team photo and began unraveling the mystery. 

Subsequently, the Ernest Houston Johnson Scholars Program was founded at Stanford to honor his legacy.