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Ernest Houston Johnson Scholars Program

Ernest Houston Johnson in an image of the 1891 Stanford football team

Apply to be an Ernest Houston Johnson scholar.

The Ernest Houston Johnson Scholars Program, formerly known as Partners for Academic Excellence, is a two-quarter program for freshmen focused on building a community of scholars. Students benefit from intimate interaction with world-class faculty; exposure to fellowships, internships and scholarships; and opportunities to network with prominent alumni.

All Johnson Scholars are assigned to a mentorship team consisting of a Ph.D. or professional school student, an upperclassman, and a member of our Board of Directors. Participants are also connected with other freshmen that have similar academic interests. The goal of each mentorship team is to encourage intellectual exploration that will ensure academic success. 

This program honors Ernest Houston Johnson, the first Black graduate of Stanford University in the pioneer class of 1891. The program captures his legacy of breaking the mold through the pursuit of higher education. Not only do our scholars follow in the footsteps of Johnson but also other notable alumni such as Charles Ogletree, '74 and '75, a Harvard Law professor; Mae Jemison, '75, the first African American woman to travel into space; Selena Cuffe, '99, a noted entrepreneur who is featured on the August 2009 cover of Black Enterprise magazine; and Nadiya Figueroa, '04, a Rhodes Scholar and former student body president. These alums represent the broad array of career paths and academic interests that were cultivated and encouraged at Stanford. As a member of the Johnson Scholars Program, students will be joining a network of intellectuals that have played an integral role in shaping our Black community, the Stanford community, the nation and the world.

Who was Ernest Houston Johnson?

Ernest Johnson was born the youngest of four in 1871, just outside of Roseville, California. Johnson’s father, Beverly, had only a third-grade education and wished nothing similar for his children. Although he lacked formal education, he was an intellectual and entrepreneur. He owned a catering business and studied Shakespeare in his spare time, a hobby he acquired while working valet for Union Soldiers during the Civil War. When Johnson became of school age, his father enrolled him in an all-white grammar school, a school that had previously turned away Johnson’s older sister. Due to Beverly’s persistence, Ernest Johnson would graduate from high school in 1891.

Through his catering business and his earlier work with the Central Pacific Railroad, Beverly, Ernest Johnson’s father, knew Leland and Jane Stanford. Dreaming of a bigger future, Ernest applied to two colleges, University of California—Berkeley and Stanford. Johnson soon received Berkeley’s letter of acceptance but heard nothing from Stanford. Accounts vary as to how Jane Stanford learned of Ernest Johnson’s situation. However, Jane Stanford, from a family of abolitionists, contacted the University President David Starr Jordan about the matter. Soon after, Ernest Johnson received his acceptance.

Despite challenging times, Johnson was amicable and popular among his Stanford classmates. He participated in several extracurricular activities including playing for Stanford's football team and working as a printer’s apprentice. He graduated with a bachelor’s in economics with the pioneer class of 1895 and attended the Stanford Law School but never received a degree. A few years later, he contracted tuberculosis. Doctors prescribed “sunshine and fresh air” but biking his way back to health only worsened his condition. On February 17, 1898, he was buried with his Stanford diploma.

In 2003, an alum notified the Black Community Services Center (BCSC) that Ernest Houston Johnson did not have a headstone for his grave. The center responded immediately and bought a headstone in honor of Johnson's legacy. On April 17, 2004 in Sacramento, California, a formal dedication to unveil Johnson's headstone was attended by the descendents of Johnson’s sister, representatives from the BCSC, the pastor of the church Johnson’s family attended and Sacramento cemetery historians. Learn more about Johnson's legacy.