James Weldon Johnson

Posted: June 4, 2014 in History
James W. Johnson

photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
Born June 17, 1871
JacksonvilleFloridaUnited States
Died June 26, 1938 (aged 67)
WiscassetMaineUnited States
Occupation author, activist, educator, lawyer, diplomat
Nationality American
Literary movement Harlem Renaissance
Notable work(s) “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManGod’s TrombonesAlong This Way

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and


James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, andcivil rights activist. Johnson is best remembered for his leadership within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917, being chosen as the first black executive secretary of the organization, effectively the operating officer.[1] He served in that position from 1920 to 1930. He was first known for his writing, which includes poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture.

He was the first African-American professor at New York University.[2] Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.

Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His brother was John Rosamond Johnson, who became a composer. The boys were first educated by their mother (a musician and a public school teacher) before attending Edwin M. Stanton School. His mother imparted to them her great love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music.[3] At the age of 16, Johnson enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor’s degree, he also completed some graduate coursework.[4]

The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida’s first winter havens, inspired young James to pursue a professional career. Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust. He knew he was expected to devote himself to helping black people advance. Johnson was a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.[1]

Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s.

Johnson served in several public capacities over the next 40 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, and civil rights activism. In 1904 he participated in Theodore Roosevelt‘s successful presidential campaign. After becoming president, Roosevelt appointed Johnson as United States consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906 to 1908, and Nicaragua from 1909 to 1913.

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail, whom he had met in New York City several years earlier while working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson later collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.[5]

After his return to New York from Nicaragua, Johnson became increasingly involved in the Harlem Renaissance, a great flourishing of art and writing. He wrote his own poetry and supported work by others, also compiling and publishing anthologies of spirituals and poetry. Owing to his influence and his innovative poetry, Johnson became a leading voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.[6]

He became involved in civil rights activism, especially the anti-lynching campaign. Starting as a field secretary, he became one of the most successful officials in the NAACP, which he helped expand by organizing new chapters in the South.[6] During this period, the NAACP was mounting legal challenges to the southern states’ disfranchisement of African Americans.

Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.[6]

Education and law careers[edit]

In the summer of 1891, following his freshman year at Atlanta University, Johnson went to a rural district in Georgia to teach the descendants of former slaves. “In all of my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia,” Johnson wrote. “I was thrown for the first time on my own resources and abilities.”[1] Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894.[7]

After graduation, he returned to Jacksonville where he taught at Stanton, a school for African-American students (the public schools were segregated) that was the largest of all the schools in the city. In 1906, at the young age of 35, he was promoted to principal. In the segregated system, Johnson was paid less than half of what white colleagues earned. He improved black education by adding the ninth and tenth grades to the school, to extend the years of schooling. He later resigned from this job to pursue other goals.[7]

While working as a teacher, Johnson also read the law to prepare for the bar. In 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since Reconstruction. He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar. In order to be accepted, Johnson had a two-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room.[7] He drew on his law background especially during his years as a civil rights activist and leading the NAACP.

In 1930 at the age of 59, Johnson returned to education after his many years leading the NAACP. He accepted the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University inNashville, Tennessee. The university created the position for him, in recognition of his achievements as a poet, editor, and critic during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to discussing literature, he lectured on a wide range of issues related to the lives and civil rights of black Americans. He held this position until his death.


In 1901, Johnson moved to New York City with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, to work in musical theater. They collaborated on such hits as “Tell Me, Dusky Maiden” and “Nobody’s Looking but the Owl and the Moon”, for which Johnson wrote the lyrics and his brother the music. Johnson composed the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” originally written for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton School. This song later became known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title the NAACP adopted and promoted.

After some successes, the brothers worked on Broadway and collaborated with producer and director Bob Cole. Johnson also composed the opera Tolosa with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, which satirizes the U.S. annexation of the Pacific islands.[8] Thanks to his success as a Broadway songwriter, Johnson moved in the upper echelons of African-American society in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Aged around 30 at the time of this photo, James W. Johnson had already written “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and been admitted to the Florida bar.


In 1906 Johnson was appointed by the Roosevelt Administration as consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he transferred toCorinto, Nicaragua.[7] During his stay at Corinto, a rebellion erupted against President Adolfo Diaz. Johnson proved an effective diplomat in such times of strain.[7]

His positions also provided time and stimulation to pursue his literary career. He wrote substantial portions of his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and his poetry collection, Fifty Years, during this period.[9] His poetry was published in major journals such as The Century Magazine and in The Independent.[10]

Literary writing[edit]

Johnson’s first success as a writer was the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (1899), which his brother Rosamond set to music; the song became unofficially known as the “Negro National Anthem.” During his time in the diplomatic service, Johnson completed what became his most well-known book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which he published anonymously in 1912. He chose anonymity to avoid any controversy that might endanger his diplomatic career.[11] It was not until 1927 that Johnson acknowledged writing the novel, stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional.

In this period, he also published his first poetry collection Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), which showed his increasing political stance and adoption of the black vernacular influences that characterize his later work.[12]

Johnson returned to New York, where he was involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He had a broad appreciation for black artists, musicians and writers, and worked to heighten awareness of their creativity. He compiled and edited the anthology The Book of American Negro Spirituals, which was published in 1925.

He continued to publish his own poetry as well. His collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) is considered most important. He demonstrated that black folk life could be the material of serious poetry.

Following the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Johnson compiled an anthology of poetry by black writers, The Book of American Negro Poetry, published in 1931. This established the African-American poetic tradition for a much wider audience, also inspiring younger poets.

In 1930, he published a sociological study, Black Manhattan. (1930) His Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), was a book-length address advocating fuller civil rights for African Americans.

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