James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson
Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
Born (1871-06-17)June 17, 1871
Jacksonville, Florida, United States
Died June 26, 1938(1938-06-26) (aged 67)
Wiscasset, Maine, United States
Occupation Author, activist, educator, lawyer, diplomat
Nationality American
Literary movement Harlem Renaissance
Notable works "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, God's Trombones, Along This Way

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

He was appointed under President Theodore Roosevelt as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua for most of the period from 1906 to 1913. In 1934 he became the first African-American professor to be hired 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. James' maternal great-grandmother, Hester Argo, had escaped from Saint-Domingue during the revolutionary upheaval in 1802, along with her three young children, including (James Weldon Johnson's grandfather), Stephen Dillet (1797-1880). Although originally headed to Cuba, their boat was intercepted by privateers and they were brought to Nassau, Bahamas instead. There they permanently settled. Stephen Dillet was the first man of color to win election to the Bahamian legislature in 1833 (ref. Along this Way, James Weldon Johnson's autobiography).

James' 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.[1] 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.[3]

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 to 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.[4]

After their 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.[5]

He became involved in civil rights activism, especially the campaign to pass federal legislation against lynching, as southern states seldom prosecuted perpetrators. Starting as a field secretary, he became one of the most successful officials in the NAACP; as executive secretary, he helped increase members and reach by organizing new chapters in the South.[5] During this period, the NAACP was mounting frequent legal challenges to the southern states disfranchisement of African Americans at the turn of the century by such devices as poll tax, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and white primaries.

Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.[5] Johnson's ashes are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Education and law careers

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.[6]

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.[6]

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 ended. 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.[6] 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 in Nashville, 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 1934 he became the first African-American professor at New York University, where he taught several classes in literature and culture.[2]


As noted above, in 1901 Johnson had 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 Abraham Lincoln's birthday at Stanton School. This song became widely popular and later became known as the "Negro National Anthem," a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted. The song went as followed:

"Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us March on till victory is won."

"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" had a lasting impact in other artistic movements as well, inspiring works such as Gwendolyn Ann Magee's quilted mosaics.[7] "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" with W.E.B. Du Bois' pronouncement in "Souls of Black Folk" articulated the fears of the generations of African Americans of postemancipation.

After some successes, the brothers worked on Broadway and collaborated with producer and director Bob Cole. Johnson also collaborated on the opera Tolosa with his brother, who wrote the music; it satirized 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 to Corinto, Nicaragua.[6] During his stay at Corinto, a rebellion erupted against President Adolfo Diaz. Johnson proved an effective diplomat in such times of strain.[6]

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

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. In 1922, he published a landmark anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry with a "Preface" that celebrated the power of black expressive culture. 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. He also comments on the violence of racism in poems like "Fragment," which describes how slavery went against both God's love and God's law.

Following the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Johnson reissued his anthology of poetry by black writers, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1931, including many new poets. This established the African-American poetic tradition for a much wider audience and also inspired 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.

Civil rights activism

Johnson lived here in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., while serving as national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

While attending Atlanta University, Johnson became known as an influential campus speaker. In 1892 he won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory. He founded and edited the newspaper, the Daily American, in 1895. At a time when southern legislatures were passing laws and constitutions that disfranchised blacks and Jim Crow laws to impose racial segregation, the newspaper covered both political and racial topics. It was terminated a year later due to financial difficulty. These early endeavors were the start of Johnson's long period of activism.

In 1904 he accepted a position as the treasurer of the Colored Republican Club, started by Charles W. Anderson. A year later he was elected as president of the club. He organized political rallies.[6] During 1914 Johnson became editor of the editorial page of the New York Age, an influential African-American weekly newspaper based in New York City. It had supported Booker T. Washington's position related to how blacks should proceed, against the arguments of W. E. B. Du Bois during the early 20th century. Johnson's writing for the Age displayed the political gift that soon made him famous.

In 1916, Johnson started working as a field secretary and organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been founded in 1910. In this role, he built and revived local chapters. Opposing race riots in northern cities and the lynchings frequent in the South during and immediately after the end of World War I, Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations. He organized a silent protest parade of more than 10,000 African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917 to protest the practice of lynching in the South.

In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the white racial violence against blacks that broke out that year in numerous industrial cities of the North and Midwest due to postwar tensions following World War I. There was fierce competition for housing and jobs.[13][14]

In 1920 Johnson was chosen as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, effectively the operating officer.[1] He served in this role through 1930. He lobbied for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921, which was passed easily by the House, but repeatedly defeated by the white Southern bloc in the Senate. The Southern bloc was powerful because their state legislatures had effectively disfranchised most African-American voters around the turn of the century, but the states had retained the full congressional apportionment related to their total populations. Southern Democratic congressmen, running unopposed, established seniority in Congress and controlled important committees.

Johnson traveled to Haiti to investigate conditions on the island, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915 because of political unrest. As a result of this trip, Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation in which he described the American occupation as brutal. He offered suggestions for the economic and social development of Haiti. These articles were later collected and reprinted as a book under the title Self-Determining Haiti.[4]

Throughout the 1920s, Johnson supported and promoted the Harlem Renaissance, trying to help young black authors to get published. Shortly before his death in 1938, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis of Germany, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians.

Legacy and honors




  • The Book of Negro Spirituals (1925, editor), anthology
  • The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926, editor)
  • The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931, editor), anthology

Other works

  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912/1927, novel)
  • Black Manhattan (1930, study)
  • Negro Americans, What Now? (1934, essay)
  • Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933/37, autobiography)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2004. 791–792.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "James Weldon Johnson", New York University<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. "James Weldon Johnson", Harmon Collection, Smithsonian Institution<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  4. 4.0 4.1 James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938, University of South Carolina<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 404 ff.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 James Weldon Johnson, The Literary Encyclopedia.
  7. Moye, Dorothy. "Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Quilts of Gwendolyn Ann Magee," Southern Spaces, September 11, 2014. https://southernspaces.org/2014/lift-every-voice-magee
  8. '"A Hot Time At Santiago": James Weldon Johnson, Popular Music, and U.S. Expansion,' All Academic
  9. Roberts, Brian (2013). Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era. Charlottessville: University of Virginia Press. p. 3. ISBN 0813933684.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "James Weldon Johnson", The Academy of America Poets.
  11. Roberts, Brian. Artistic Ambassadors. pp. 57–59.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Müller, Timo. "James Weldon Johnson and the Genteel Tradition," Arizona Quarterly 69.2 (2013): 85-102.
  13. Erickson, Alana J. "Red Summer," Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Macmillan, 1960. 2293–94.
  14. Cunningham, George P. "James Weldon Johnson," Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Macmillan, 1960. 1459–61.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 "Chapter 9: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)", PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide, California State University Stanislaus<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  16. James Weldon Johnson Institute, Emory University
  17. Scott catalog # 2371.


  • Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Twayne United States Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
  • Hester, Elizabeth J. "James Weldon Johnson: A Bibliography of * Johnson, James Weldon. Writings. Ed. William L. Andrews. The Library of America, 2004. ISBN 978-1-931082-52-5.
  • (English) Kishimoto, Hisao. "The Eve of the Harlem Renaissance James Weldon Johnson (II)", (Archive) Souka University English Language Academic Journal (創価大学英文学会). Souka University. March 1988. Volume No. 12, Issue No. 2 (第12巻第2号). p. 1-16.
  • Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
  • Morrissette, Noelle. James Weldon Johnson's Modern Soundscapes. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.
  • Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997.

Dissertations and Theses 1939–2009." ISBN 978-1-935779-00-1.

  • Manning, Patrick. The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

External links