Johnson Graduate Fellowship Supports Diversity in Creative Writing

University of Arkansas alumnus J. Chester Johnson and his wife, Freda, of New York City, have committed $150,000 to Campaign Arkansas to endow The J. Chester and Freda S. Johnson Graduate Fellowship in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

The fellowship is the result of a collaboration between the nationally ranked Program in Creative Writing and Translation and two activists who have made social justice and civil rights a hallmark of their lives and livelihoods.

“The support of Chester and Freda Johnson is particularly meaningful to our creative writing program because of their longstanding dedication to core values that we also pursue: creativity and the diversity of voices that will shape the next generation of writers,” said Davis McCombs, director of the Program in Creative Writing and Translation. “We’re incredibly excited to join their legacy of social justice with our program’s legacy of creative excellence.”

The fellowship will be used to attract and recruit top students who create and maintain the diversity of the M.F.A. program in creative writing. Diversity for the program includes, but is not limited to, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and other aspects of diversity in geographic, cultural and economic backgrounds.

“We wanted to focus on students because of their potential,” Freda Johnson said. “You never know what’s going to be generated by students. And if this fellowship can help provide diversification in the student body, that’s even more beneficial.”

“Both of us came from modest families,” J. Chester Johnson said. “Going to college is a struggle for a lot of people, especially people from different backgrounds. We want to help those who might not otherwise be able to come to the university.”

The creation of this endowment has been a dream of Padma Viswanathan, an associate professor of fiction in the Department of English at the university. When Viswanathan started teaching as a full-time, tenure track professor in 2014, she recognized the program’s need for more diverse applicants.

“I’m thrilled on every level that the fellowship will now be taken forward by Chester and Freda Johnson’s generous gift,” Viswanathan said. “Chester and Freda are lifelong supporters of all the values the fellowship is intended to champion. Chester is also a poet and an Arkansas native, and so knows from the inside the importance of generating and living new stories in this place.”

J. Chester and Freda Johnson

J. Chester Johnson grew up in Monticello and attended Harvard University, leaving after Freedom Summer – a volunteer campaign in 1964 to increase African-American voter registration – to return to the South when the region was in the midst of major social and political change. He transferred to the University of Arkansas to complete a bachelor’s degree in education in 1968.

“My time at the University of Arkansas was crucial in my development,” he said. “The molding of my attitudes and intellectual and broader purposes that would guide my future occurred there.”

Prior to the integration of the local Arkansas school systems, Johnson taught at Drew School, the African-American public school in Monticello. He then spent the majority of his career in finance at Moody’s Investors Service, J.P. Morgan, the U.S. Treasury Department, and later served for 30 years, as chairman and owner of Government Finance Associates Inc., a leading financial adviser for debt management to states and large local governments and public authorities.

Freda Johnson graduated from Queens College in New York and also enjoyed a career in finance, working for 21 years in the public finance department of Moody’s Investors Service. As executive vice president and director of the public finance department, she became the most senior woman in the company and the first woman in the public finance industry to run a public finance department at a rating agency. She remained in this role for 12 years and joined Government Finance Associates Inc. as president in 1990, where she and Johnson worked together for 22 years.

In 2011, the Northeast Women in Public Finance and The Bond Buyer created an annual award – now known as the “Freda Johnson Award” – to recognize trailblazing women in public finance. 

The Johnsons’ interests are not limited to finance, however. The couple maintain a focus on diversity and are strong supporters of and contributors to the literary arts.

“We are creative writing devotees and very much supportive of creative writing efforts,” said Freda Johnson, who serves on the board of directors of Four Way Books, a nonprofit literary press which publishes poetry and short fiction by emerging and established writers. 

J. Chester Johnson is a poet and essayist with several acclaimed books to his credit, and the importance of diversity and social justice have significantly influenced his life and writing. He recently addressed graduate students and faculty in the Program in Creative Writing and Translation at the U of A as part of a tour for his two 2017 pubications, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems and Auden, the Psalms, and Me, the story of the 12-year project of retranslating the psalms contained in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The renowned poet, W.H. Auden, and Johnson were the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation.

Johnson has also written numerous prose and poetry pieces on social justice and civil rights, several of which are contained in the J. Chester Johnson Collection of the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College in New York. In addition, Johnson wrote the Litany of Offense and Apology for the Day of Repentance (Oct. 4, 2008) when the national Episcopal Church formally apologized for its role in transatlantic slavery. He acknowledges that writing has been a constant in his life since high school.

“Diversity is an element of a pluralistic society, and anything anyone can do to further pluralism – particularly in the arts – should be pursued,” J. Chester Johnson said.

“The creative writing program at the University of Arkansas is well-respected throughout the world,” Freda Johnson added. “Their commitment to diversity is organic and not forced.”

In addition to the Program in Creative Writing and Translation, the Johnsons have supported the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History and are members of the Chancellor’s Society. J. Chester Johnson is a life member of the Arkansas Alumni Association and received the Citation of Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010. Freda Johnson is a member of the Queens College Foundation Board of Trustees.

About Campaign Arkansas: Campaign Arkansas is the ongoing capital campaign for the University of Arkansas to raise private gift support for the university’s academic mission and other key priorities. The campaign’s goal is to raise $1 billion to support academic and need-based scholarships, technology enhancements, new and renovated facilities, undergraduate, graduate and faculty research, study abroad opportunities and other innovative programs. The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in a wide spectrum of disciplines as it works to fulfill its public land-grant mission to serve Arkansas and beyond as a partner, resource and catalyst.

About the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences: The Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences is the largest and most academically diverse unit on campus with 19 departments and 43 academic programs and research centers. The college provides the core curriculum for all University of Arkansas students and is named for Fulbright, former university president and longtime U.S. senator.

About the Program in Creative Writing & Translation: Founded in 1966, the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing and Translation in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences consistently ranks in the top 40 MFA programs nationwide, according to Poets & Writers magazine. The Atlantic Monthly named the U of A among the “Top Five Most Innovative” MFA programs in the nation. Noteworthy graduates include Barry Hannah, C.D. Wright, Lucinda Roy, and Nic Pizzolatto.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.



Jennifer Holland, director of development communications

University Relations