James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson

photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1932
Born: June 17, 1871
Jacksonville, Florida
Died: June 26, 1938
Wiscasset, Maine
Occupation: educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, writer, anthropologist, poet, activist
Nationality: Flag of United States United States
Literary movement: Harlem Renaissance
Influences: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was a leading American author, critic, journalist, poet, anthropologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, early civil rights activist, and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson is best remembered for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and collections of folklore. He was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University. Later in life he was a Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Education and Law
  • 3 Music
  • 4 Diplomacy
  • 5 Literature and Anthropology
  • 6 Poetry
  • 7 Activism
  • 8 Selected works
    • 8.1 Poetry
    • 8.2 Other works and collections
  • 9 Notes
  • 10 Other references
  • 11 External links


Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet and James Johnson. Johnson was first educated by his mother (a public school teacher) and then at Edmin M. Stanton School. At the age of 16 he enrolled at Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there.[1] He served in several public capacities over the next 35 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry, and music. In 1910 Johnson married Grace Nail, the daughter of a prosperous real estate developer from New York. He became a member of Sigma Pi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. at some point after its founding in 1914. James Weldon Johnson died in 1938 while on vacation 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.[2]

Education and Law

After graduation he returned to Stanton, a school for African American students in Jacksonville, until 1906, where, at the young age of 23, he became principal. Johnson improved education by adding the ninth and tenth grades. In 1897, Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since Reconstruction. In the 1930s Johnson became of Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. where he lectured not only on literature but also on a wide range of issues to do with the life and civil rights of black Americans.


In 1899, Johnson moved to New York City with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson to work in musical theater. 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 would later become to be known - and adopted as such by the NAACP - as the Negro National Anthem. The song was entered into the Congressional Record as the official African American National Hymn following the success of a 1990 rendition by singer Melba Moore and a bevy of other recording artists. After successes with their songwriting and music the brothers worked at 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. [3]

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.
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 US consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909 he transferred to be the US consul of Corinto, Nicaragua.[4] During his work in the foreign service, Johnson became a published poet, with work printed in the magazine The Century Magazine and in The Independent.[5]

Literature and Anthropology

During his six-year stay in South America he completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man which was published anonymously in 1912. It was only in 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship - stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional. Other works include The Book of American Negro Spirtuals (1925), Black Manhattan (1930), his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the cultural scene of New York, and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book calling for civil rights for African Americans. Johnson was also an accomplished anthropologist. Johnsons’ anthologies provided inspiration, encouragement, and recognition to the new generation of artists who would create the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.[6]


The poetry of Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and the works of people like W.E.B Dubois ignited the Harlem Renaissance. In 1922, he edited The Book of American Negro Poetry, which the Academy of American Poets calls "a major contribution to the history of African-American literature."[5] One of the works for which he is best remembered today, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927 and celebrates the tradition of the folk preacher.


While serving the NAACP from 1920 through 1931 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history. Throughout the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance trying to refute condescending white criticism and helping young black authors to get published. While serving in the NAACP Johnson was involved in sparking the drive-behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921.

Shortly before his untimely death in 1938, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians. According to musical historian James Nathan Jones, the formation of the "American Negro Orchestra" (as it was then known) represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had had for thirty years."

Selected works


  • Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)
  • Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)
  • Go Down, Death (1926)
  • God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)
  • Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1935)
  • The Glory of the Day was in Her Face
  • Selected Poems (1936)

Other works and collections

  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912/1927)
  • Self-Determining Haiti (1920)
  • The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922)
  • The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925)
  • Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926)
  • Black Manhattan (1930)
  • Negro Americans, What Now? (1934)
  • Along This Way (1934)
  • The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (1995, posthumous collection)


  1. ^ James Weldon Johnson: Harmon Collection
  2. ^ The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford, 1997, p. 404 ff.
  3. ^ http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p105641_index.html
  4. ^ James Weldon Johnson, The Literary Encyclopedia
  5. ^ a b James Weldon Johnson, profile by The Academy of American Poets
  6. ^ http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/johnson/johnson1.html

Other references

  • James Weldon Johnson: Writings (William L. Andrews, editor) (The Library of America), 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108252-5.
  • Yenser, Thomas (editor), Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, Brooklyn, New York, 1930-1931-1932 (Third Edition)
  • The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford, 1997, p. 404 ff.
  • Works by James Weldon Johnson at Project Gutenberg
  • James Weldon Johnson's Gravesite
  • James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
  • "A Hot Time At Santiago”: James Weldon Johnson, Popular Music, U.S. Expansion
  • James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938--Biography
  • James Weldon Johnson
  • Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson
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