Joseph Johnson was born Joseph Williams in Baltimore, Maryland in 1910. His parents both died of influenza in September 1918, and he was thereafter raised by his maternal Grandmother who encouraged his natural talent. He would use her last name for most purposes after leaving her home and going further north to find work.
At age 18 he traveled to New York. He was talented but young and untrained at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, however within a few years he was befriended by several artists, including Earle Richardson, who was of a like age. While working as a plumber's apprentice he was allowed to audit classes at the National Academy of Design and was a member of the Negro Artists Guild. During the Depression Johnson traveled throughout the northeast and New York State trying to find work that paid well enough to support his wife and two daughters while sustaining himself on the road. While traveling in New York state, he met the art instructor Lars Hoftrup, who had taught Grant Wood, and who was a generous teacher to him. While he was traveling in 1935, his wife Estelle died in a house fire. He did not remarry.
After 1935 he stayed closer to home and his daughters, but this hampered his ability to find work during the depression years. In the late 1930s and 1940s he battled alcoholism but did make a recovery. Painting was his passion, but he was not a commercial success, and did not sell during the Depression era. He worked on several government works projects in Pennsylvania and New York. During his lifetime he did put both of his daughters through college. He was blinded by complications of diabetes late in life, and died in rural Maryland at the age of 62 in 1972. He was a member of the Baptist church and was survived by one daughter and two grandsons.
oral family history, two letters, and notes in several family bibles