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.&nb
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