The First Benefactor
Robert R. Johnson raised the funds for Georgia State’s first permanent building
The newly formed Evening School of Commerce relocated to the downtown Atlanta business district in 1914. Enrollment grew rapidly, requiring the school to move frequently. The school had four locations from 1914-31. Rooms were rented in these locations, with classes and school administration often sharing the same room.
The rooms at Forsyth Street were “dingy,” “overcrowded, “unsanitary” and “a serious fire hazard,” according to Merl Reed in “Educating the Urban New South.” As then-president George Sparks searched for a new building, he found welcome support from Robert Rosser Johnson, an Atlanta coal company executive. In the spring of 1930 the two men found a solidly constructed building at 223 Walton St. which, when renovated, could provide 19 rooms for the growing student population.
The Technite, the Evening School’s student newspaper noted, “In addition to 14 fine classrooms, four sanitary and modernly equipped restrooms, study halls, reception rooms, the building is to house a modern coffee shop and a roof garden on top for recreation purposes.”
Johnson became chief fundraiser as building committee chair. His task included raising $17,500 for the mortgage and an estimated $10,000 in services and building materials for renovation. It was not easy that hot summer, as the Depression took hold, but Johnson continued, month after month, serving also as unofficial purchasing agent and bursar.
Even in the midst of the Depression, Johnson was able to raise funds from individuals and two corporate sponsors — Coca-Cola and Retail Credit, now Equifax.
When the completed building was dedicated in May 1931, Johnson had raised $33,528 in pledges and in-kind donations for the building fund, personally pledged $10,000 (by far the largest pledge of any donor) and signed a note for $8,500 to cover unpaid invoices.
The Evening School now had its own building, and nearly 700 students enrolled that fall, the largest number ever. Sparks commented gratefully: “Homes throughout the land will be blessed because Robert Johnson and his loyal friends wrought well for those less fortunate — but who are now to have an attractive school home for modern business training.”
Five years later — in 1936 — Johnson paid off the remaining $14,000 indebtedness on the building. His personal contributions to the $80,000 building were estimated to be $40,000.
The next year, on Dec. 10, 1937, Johnson died after a brief illness. He was 53 years old. Grieving students, now more than 1,100 strong, respectfully dedicated their 1938 Nocturne yearbook to Robert Rosser Johnson, “Friend and Benefactor of the Evening College.”
Laurel Bowen is Georgia State University’s Digital Archivist.