Childhood & Early Life
James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His father James Johnson was the head waiter at the famous St. James Hotel, while his mother Helen Louise nee Dillet was a teacher at the segregated ‘Edwin M. Stanton School’. She was also a good musician.
He was born elder of his parents’ two children, having a younger brother named John Rosamond Johnson, who grew up to become a famous composer. As Jacksonville was relatively tolerant in racial matters, the two boys grew up in a relatively peaceful atmosphere.
Johnson’s mother was his first teacher, who inspired a love for English literature, drawing and music in him. He was then enrolled in ‘Edwin M. Stanton School’. At the age of 16, he entered the ‘Atlanta University’, graduating from there in 1874.
At the Atlanta University, racial issues were hotly debated, making him aware of the intensity of prejudice in America. During his summer holidays, he taught black students in poor districts of rural Georgia, and the experience inspired him to do something for his people.
During his college years, Johnson was an important member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. Around this time, he also wrote around thirty poems, whose central themes were aspirations and struggles of black people in America.
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In 1894, James Weldon Johnson earned his AB degree from the ‘University of Atlanta’ and came back to Jacksonville. He first taught at ‘Stanton College of Preparatory School’ and then joined ‘Edwin M. Stanton School’ as a teacher. He was promoted as its principal shortly after, holding this position until 1900. During this period, he expanded the curriculum and eventually turned the school into a high school.
In 1895, he founded a newspaper called ‘Daily American’, which was mainly devoted to the issues faced by black people. Johnson, who was almost single-handedly running it, had to close it down after one year due to the lack of funds.
Although he considered the closure of his newspaper a failure, it was the medium through which American-African leaders like Booker Taliaferro Washington and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois came to know about him. His association with them helped him immensely in his fight against racial discrimination later on.
Concurrently with teaching and running a newspaper, Johnson also studied law, passing the bar examination in 1897. With that, he became the first colored person to enter the Florida Bar, something he achieved after appearing for a two-hour long oral examination before a panel of a judge and three attorneys.
Johnson practiced law for a few years in partnership with a former Atlanta University classmate. However, he soon realized that he was not cut out for a legal career and derived a greater satisfaction from writing poetry.
In 1900, he wrote ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. After his brother John Rosamond composed music for it, the song was sung by around 500 colored school children on Lincoln’s birthday.
In New York City
James Weldon Johnson and his brother John moved to New York City in 1901. James started studying English literature at the ‘Columbia University’. In the same year, he and his brother entered into a partnership with Bob Cole and also secured a publishing contract, which paid a monthly stipend.
In the early 1900s, the Johnson brothers wrote more than 200 songs for Broadway. Their big break came in the fall of 1902, when Broadway vocalist and stage artist Mary Cahill heard their song ‘Under the Bamboo Tree’ and immediately included it in her musical comedy.
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Sung by Cahill, ‘Under the Bamboo Tree’ became immensely popular. By mid-1903, it had sold over 400,000 copies. Very soon, the Johnson brothers were rechristened ‘Those Ebony Offenbachs’. Although they also wrote many non-racial songs, their fame primarily rested on songs with Negro themes, such as the ‘Congo Love Song’ (1903).
In 1903, Bob Cole and the Johnsons began to work on ‘The Evolution of Ragtime’, a series of songs designed to showcase the development of Negro music. The first in the series had religious themes; the second was patterned after minstrel shows, and the third was based on secular folk music.
James Johnson received his M.A. degree in creative English literature from the ‘Columbia University’ in 1904. By then, the trio had established themselves in the world of music, not just as Negro musicians, but as artists whose songs appealed to people of all races.
Their success drew the attention of Booker Taliaferro Washington. In 1904, he asked James Johnson to speak at a meeting of ‘National Negro Business League’. His speech, entitled ‘The Composition of Music as Business’, synced with Washington’s thoughts on practical success, bringing the two men close.
In 1904, Johnson was appointed the treasurer of New York's Colored Republican Club. In the same year, he helped in writing of two songs for the presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate and future US president.
The Roosevelt Administration appointed James Weldon Johnson as the consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1906. Since his duties were light, he spent most of his time writing poetry, having them published in ‘The Century Magazine’ and ‘The Independent’.
His acclaimed sonnet ‘Mother Night’ was written during his stay in Venezuela. He also began working on his only novel ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’ during this time, in addition to mastering the Spanish language.
Johnson was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua, in 1909 where his duties were a little more demanding than what they were in Venezuela. During his tenure in Nicaragua, a rebellion against President Adolfo Diaz erupted, which led to the landing of US troops in Corinto in 1912. Johnson proved to be an effective diplomat in the time of crisis.
In 1912, he anonymously published ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’. Since the book contained many race-related issues, which were generally not discussed in literature, he feared it might affect his career. Therefore, he refrained from using his own name.
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Return to New York
James Weldon Johnson realized that his prospect as a diplomat was limited. Therefore, he resigned from his position and returned to New York in 1913 to become an editorial writer at the ‘New York Age’. He not only produced many significant write-ups during his 10 years at one of the most distinguished black papers, but also became its editor in 1914.
The articles he wrote for the ‘New York Age’ were on the conservative side. Brimming with a strong sense of racial pride, they advised colored people to focus on improving their lot through self-education and hard work instead of waiting for the barriers to be removed.
Concurrently with writing for the ‘New York Age’, Johnson also continued to pursue his literally interests and translated ‘Goyescas’ into English. The grand opera by Fernando Periquet was performed by Metropolitan Opera in 1915.
In 1916, he accepted the newly created post of the national field secretary at the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’. His duties included organizing new NAACP branches across the country and investigating cases of racial abuses.
Johnson organized a silent protest march down the Fifth Avenue, New York on July 28, 1917. Around 10,000 African-Americans participated in this march against lynching. In the same year, he published his first collection of verses ‘Fifty Years and Other Poems’, containing poems written over a period of 20 years.
In 1920, he was appointed an executive secretary in NAACP, a position he held until 1930. In the same year, he traveled to Haiti to investigate the brutality committed by the US forces. He not only published a series of reports on it, but also suggested measures to improve the economic situation in that country.
In 1921, Johnson lobbied for Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which passed in the House of Representatives, but was blocked by the powerful southern Democratic lobby of the Senate. Meanwhile, he continued pursuing his literally as well musical interests, supporting and promoting the Harlem Renaissance throughout the 1920s.
He encouraged and supported young Black authors who wanted to publish their works. In 1922, he published his first anthology ‘The Book of American Negro Poetry’. It was followed by two other anthologies ‘The Book of Negro Spirituals’ (1925) and ‘The Second Book of Negro Spirituals’ (1926).
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In 1927, Johnson published his second collection of poems ‘God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse’. In the same year, his first novel ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’ was republished under his own name.
In 1930, he published his important work, ‘Black Manhattan’. In this book, he combined his skills as a historian, social scientist and reporter to trace the black history from the time they first settled in Chatham Square in pre-revolutionary days to Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
Johnson resigned from the NAACP in December 1930 in order to devote more time to writing. Subsequently, he accepted a part-time professorship in creative literature and writing at the ‘Fisk University’, a historically black university in Nashville, Tennessee. All along, he remained active in civil rights movement.
In 1931, he reissued ‘The Book of American Negro Poetry’ after including several new poems in it. It was followed by his much-admired autobiography, ‘Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson’ (1933).
In 1934, Johnson became the first African-American professor to be hired by the ‘New York University’. In the same year, he published ‘Negro Americans, What Now?’, a book-length argument, prescribing racial integration. His last collection of poems ‘Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems’ was published in 1935.
James Weldon Johnson’s first major work was a song called ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’. It was performed in Jacksonville on February 12, 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's birthday celebration. In 1919, NAACP hailed it as ‘The Negro National Anthem’.
Johnson is quite well known for his only novel, ’The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’, which was first published anonymously in 1912. It is a fictional account of a young man born to a colored mother and a rich white father in the post Reconstruction era.
Awards & Achievements
In 1925, James Weldon Johnson was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for his outstanding achievements as an American Negro.
He received the Harmon Gold Award for ‘God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse’ in 1928, and the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature in 1933.
He received honorary doctorates from the ‘Talladega College’ in 1917 and from the ‘Howard University’ in 1923. In 1929, he received the Julius Rosenwald Fund Grant.
Family & Personal Life
James Weldon Johnson married Grace Nail on February 3, 1910. Grace was the daughter of John Bennett Nail, the first life member of the NAACP. She was also a civil rights activist and patron of arts. The couple did not have any children.
Johnson died on June 26, 1938, after a train struck his car at an unguarded rail crossing in Wiscasset, Maine. He was buried in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, New York.
In 2007, the ‘Emory University’ in Atlanta established the ‘James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies’ in his honor. The James Weldon Johnson building at the ‘Coppin State University’ has also been named after him.
The United States Postal Service issued a 22-cent postage stamp in Johnson’s honor on February 2, 1988. He has also been honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.