Johnson was born on September 26, 1892, in Richmond to Ruffin Franklin Johnson and Ellen Banks Johnson. Johnson’s grandfather was an enslaved man, Samuel Johnson, who became an expert carpenter and bought his freedom with his earnings. He trained his son Ruffin Franklin Johnson in the building arts, and the younger man went on to establish a successful Richmond construction company, R. F. Johnson and Sons, that built houses and offices for African Americans.
Harvey Nathaniel Johnson enrolled in Wayland Academy (now Virginia Union University) from 1907 to 1910, when he left school to assist in the family business. Three years later, Johnson married Mary Sharrah, daughter of Henry and Annie Brown Sharrah. They established a household in Jackson Ward and welcomed daughter Edith and son Harvey Jr. Johnson’s request for an exemption from military service in World War I based on family status was denied, and the U.S. Navy made him a warehouse construction foreman at Camp Hill in Newport News, where he supervised an all-Black crew until the war ended.
In 1919, Johnson enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh to study architecture. To pay for his education, he worked as a carpenter for Frank Darrah, a Pittsburgh contractor. After graduation, Harvey opened an architectural office in Norfolk, and the business thrived, with projects including houses and offices in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Richmond.
Mary Sharrah Johnson died in Norfolk in November 1921. Just under fourteen months later, Harvey married Mary Vivian Hughes Riddick.
The Attucks Theatre
Johnson’s best-known project is the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk. In 1919, Johnson designed and supervised construction of the theater, which was financed and operated by local African American entrepreneurs. The three-story brick and white terra-cotta structure is located at 1008–1012 Church Street, the roadway through the predominantly African American Huntersville neighborhood that was lined with clothing stores, pharmacies, mom-and-pop groceries, butchers and fishmongers, churches, funeral homes, and offices. The theater was named in honor of Crispus Attucks, a sailor of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry who became the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was killed during the Boston Massacre.
The building consisted of a lobby space and a 600-seat theater with two floors of office space above. According to The African American Theatre Directory, 1816–1960, the Attucks “was one of the most modern and well-equipped theatres of its time.” The venue showed motion pictures and attracted well-known vaudeville and musical acts, including Bessie Smith, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Marian Anderson, Moms Mabley, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, Smokey Robinson, and Gary U.S. Bonds. It became known as the Apollo Theater of the South.
The Attucks also hosted church services and religious concerts as well as recitals, graduations, and other Norfolk public school events. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, and other professionals occupied the facility’s twenty-one offices.
The local African American community struggled after the, and the theater closed in 1953. Forty years later, the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization established by African American business and community leaders in Hampton Roads, began fundraising for restoration efforts. The original fire curtain—three stories high and thirty feet wide—depicting the Boston Massacre was restored, as were several original doors, chandeliers, and a stained-glass skylight. The theater reopened in 2004 after an $8 million renovation.
Johnson’s associations with church leadership led to his decision to enter the ministry. In 1924, he became pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Lindenwood, a prosperous African American neighborhood in Norfolk. Seven years later, he was called to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Portsmouth, where his first responsibility was to “rescue the church from creditors and its dwindling congregation from oblivion.” He accomplished both without taking out loans.
During his forty-year tenure in the pulpit, Johnson continued his involvement in church construction and renovation, including overseeing the building of a new brick sanctuary for the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church in Norfolk’s Norview neighborhood and a new Sunday school annex at the white Jackson Memorial Baptist Church in Portsmouth.
Johnson was a popular speaker who appeared at dozens of events and programs locally and nationally during the 1950s and 1960s. He preached at commemorations of Baptist churches throughout the area, among them the 89th anniversary of the First Baptist Church of Hampton in 1952 and the 113th anniversary of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church in 1954. Johnson was the principal speaker when the Petersburg chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kicked off its 1956 annual membership drive, with the Richmond Times-Dispatch noting that he was as “prominently known as a militant crusader for human rights as for his brilliant career as a clergyman and church architect.” During this time, Johnson continued his architectural work with the renovation of Petersburg’s century-old First Baptist Church.
Johnson worked with other Black community leaders to bring the first Black Boy Scouts of America troop to the Tidewater area when his Mount Olive Baptist Church chartered the troop in 1928. When Johnson moved to Ebenezer Baptist, he brought scouting to Portsmouth.
In 1949, Johnson ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Delegates. His controversial platform called for free college education for high school students who made all As, the abolition of the poll tax, and equalization of the facilities and teachers’ salaries for Black and white schools.
In 1969, under Johnson’s leadership, Ebenezer Baptist Church opened the fifty-two-unit Ebenezer Plaza, a federally financed housing development for families that earned too much to qualify for public housing. Johnson was also a member of the Community College Board and served on the Portsmouth mayor’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee. Johnson was a member of the Portsmouth School Board from 1961 to 1968 and he participated in the founding of what became Norfolk State College.
Johnson suffered a fatal heart attack on December 6, 1973, and was buried next to his second wife, Mary Vivian Hughes Johnson, at Portsmouth’s Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.