blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

James Weldon Johnson's Life and Career

Herman Beavers

reiss.jpg.jpg (13505 bytes)
Portriat by Weinold Reiss

Songwriter, poet, novelist, journalist, critic, and autobiographer. James Weldon Johnson, much like his contemporary W. E. B. Du Bois, was a man who bridged several historical and literary trends. Born in 1871, during the optimism of the Reconstruction period, in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was imbued with an eclectic set of talents. Over the course of his sixty-seven years, Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida bar since the end of Reconstruction; the co-composer (with his brother John Rosamond) of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' the song that would later become known as the Negro National Anthem; field secretary in the NAACP; journalist; publisher; diplomat; educator; translator; librettist; anthologist; and English professor; in addition to being a well-known poet and novelist and one of the prime movers of the Harlem Renaissance.

As the first son of James Johnson and the former Helen Louise Dillet, James Weldon inherited his forebears' combination of industrious energy and public-mindedness, as demonstrated by his maternal grandfathers long life in public service in the Bahamas, where he served in the House of Assembly for thirty years. James, Sr., spent many years as the headwaiter of the St. James Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, where he had moved the family after his sponge fishing and dray businesses were ruined by a hurricane that hit the Bahamas in 1866. James, Jr., was born and educated in Jacksonville, first by his mother, who taught for many years in the public schools, and later by James C. Walter, the well-educated but stern principal of the Stanton School. Graduating at the age of sixteen, Johnson enrolled in Atlanta University, from which be graduated in 1894. After graduation, Johnson, though only twenty-three, returned to the Stanton School to become its principal.

In 1895, Johnson founded the Daily American, a newspaper devoted to reporting on issues pertinent to the black community. Though the paper only lasted a year (with Johnson doing most of the work himself for eight of those months) before it succumbed to financial hardship, it addressed racial injustice and, in keeping with Johnson's upbringing, asserted a self-help philosophy that echoed Booker T. Washington. Of the demise of the paper he wrote in his autobiography, Along This Way, "The failure of the Daily American was my first taste of defeat in public life. . . ." However the effort was not a total failure, for both Washington and his main rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, became aware of Johnson through his journalistic efforts, leading to opportunities in later years.

Turning to the study of law, Johnson studied with a young, white lawyer named Thomas A. Ledwith. But despite the fact that he built up a successful law practice in Jacksonville, Johnson soon tired of the law (his practice had been conducted concurrently with his duties as principal of the Stanton School). When his brother returned to Jacksonville after graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1897, James's poems provided the lyrics for Rosamond's early songs. By the end of the decade, both brothers were in New York, providing compositions to Broadway musicals. There they met Bob Cole, whom Johnson described as a man of such immense talent that he could "write a play, stage it, and play a part."

The brothers split their time between Jacksonville and New York for a number of years before settling in New York for good. However, their greatest composition, the one for which they are best known, was written for a Stanton School celebration of Lincoln's birthday. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was a song that, as Johnson put it, the brothers let pass out of [their] minds," after it had been published.

But the song’s importance grew from the students, who remembered it and taught it to other students throughout the South, until some twenty years later it was adopted by the NAACP as the "Negro National Hymn."

It was this kind of creativity under duress, coupled with his connections in the political sphere, that characterized Johnson's life as an artist and activist. Indeed, between the years 1914 and 1931, his desire to explore the limits of both worlds led him to seek a more thorough synthesis of his public and artistic sensibilities. The study of literature, which Johnson began around 1904 under the tutelage of the critic and novelist Brander Matthews, who was then teaching at Columbia University, caused Johnson to withdraw from the Cole/Johnson partnership to pursue a life as a writer. However, this creative impulse coincided with his decision in 1906 to serve as United States consul to Venezuela, a post that Washington's political connections with the Roosevelt administration helped to secure.

During the three years he held this post, Johnson completed his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which he published anonymously in 1912. Though many read the novel as a sociological document, its true value lies in the manner in which it recasts the "tragic mulatto" story within the context of Du Bois's metaphor of the veil. The novel sparked renewed interest when Johnson announced in 1927 that he had authored the book as fiction. Indeed, so great was the public propensity to equate the novel's hero with Johnson himself that Johnson felt obliged to write his autobiography, which appeared in 1933 under the title Along This Way.

He had, by this time, established himself as an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. From his post as field secretary of the NAACP, Johnson was a witness to the changes taking place in the artistic sphere. As a prominent voice in the literary debates of the day, Johnson undertook the task of editing The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926), and writing his survey of African American cultural contributions to the New York artistic scene in Black Manhattan (1930). His own career as a poet reached its culmination in God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. Though not noted for playing the role of polemicist, through each of these literary enterprises Johnson worked to refute biased commentary from white critics while prodding African American writers toward a more ambitious vision of literary endeavor. It was Johnson's great hope that the contributions of younger writers would do for African Americans, "what [John Millington] Synge did for the Irish," namely utilizing folk materials to "express the racial spirit [of African Americans] from within, rather than [through] symbols from without. . . ." Hence Johnson's attempt to discredit Negro dialect, a literary convention characterized by misspellings and malapropisms, which in Johnson's view was capable of conveying only pathos or humor. Though writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling A. Brown would challenge this viewpoint, Johnson's point must be understood within the context of his life as a public figure.

With the arrival of the 1930s, Johnson had seen the NAACP’s membership rolls and political influence increase, though the latter failed to produce tangible legislative and social reform in Washington. Retiring to a life as Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University, Johnson lectured widely on the topics of racial advancement and civil rights, while completing Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book that argued for the merits of racial integration and cooperation, and his last major verse collection, Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (1934). Though he died in a tragic automobile accident while vacationing in Maine in June of 1938, Johnson continues to be remembered for his unflappable integrity and his devotion to human service.

See: James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way, 1933; rpt. 1968. Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson, 1973. Robert E. Fleming, ed., James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps: A Reference Guide, 1978. Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, "Johnson, James Weldon," in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the Twentieth Century, vol. 2, ed. Leonard S. Klein, 1982, pp. 517-518. Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson, 1987. Joseph T. Skerritt, "James Weldon Johnson," in African American Writers, eds. Lea Baechler, A. Walton Litz, and Valerie Smith, 1991, pp. 219-233.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright Oxford University Press.

Eugene Levy

johnharm.jpg (63520 bytes)
James Weldon Johnson. 1943 Oil Painting by Laura Wheeler Waring.
National Portrait Gallery/ Smithsonian Institution

Johnson, James Weldon (17 June 1871-26 June 1938), civil-rights leader, poet, and novelist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of James Johnson, a resort hotel headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home in an era, Johnson recalled in Along This Way (1933), when "Jacksonville was known far and wide as a good town for Negroes" because of the jobs provided by its winter resorts. After completing the eighth grade at Stanton Grammar School, the only school open to African Americans in his hometown, Johnson attended the preparatory school and then the college division of Atlanta University, where he developed skills as a writer and a public speaker. Following his graduation in 1894 Johnson returned to his hometown and became principal of Stanton School.

School teaching, however, did not satisfy his ambitions. While continuing as principal Johnson started a short-lived newspaper and then read law in a local attorney's office well enough to pass the exam for admission to the Florida state bar. He also continued to write poetry, a practice he had started in college. In early 1900 he and his brother Rosamond, an accomplished musician, collaborated on "Lift Every Voice and Sing," an anthem commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday. African-American groups around the country found the song inspirational, and within fifteen years it had acquired a subtitle: "The Negro National Anthem."

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was not the only song on which the brothers collaborated. In 1899 the two spent the summer in New York City, where they sold their first popular song, "Louisiana Lize." In 1902 they left Jacksonville to join Bob Cole, a young songwriter they had met early on in New York, in the quickly successful Broadway songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Brothers. Over the next few years Johnson was largely responsible for the lyrics of such hit songs as "Nobody's Lookin' but de Owl and de Moon" (1901), "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902), and "Congo Love Song" (1903).

In 1906 Johnson's life took another turn when, through the influence of Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909 he moved to a more significant post as consul in Corinto, Nicaragua. A year later he returned to the United States for a brief stay in New York City, where he married Grace Nail, a member of a well-established African-American family. They did not have children. In 1912 revolution broke out in Nicaragua. Johnson's role in aiding U.S. Marines in defeating the rebels drew high praise from Washington. He left the Consular Service in 1913; there would be, he felt, little opportunity for an African American in the newly elected Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Johnson maintained his literary efforts during this period. Several of his poems (including "Fifty Years," commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) appeared in nationally circulated publications. In 1912 he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel whose central character, unlike Johnson, was light enough to "pass" as a white man; the book explores the young man's struggles to find his place in American society. Johnson returned to New York City in 1914, and he soon began a weekly column on current affairs for the New York Age, a widely distributed African-American newspaper.

In 1917 Johnson joined the staff of the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He worked as field secretary, largely responsible for establishing local branches throughout the South and for increasing overall membership from 10,000 to 44,000 by the end of 1918. In 1920 Johnson became the NAACP's first African-American secretary (its chief operating officer), a position he held throughout the 1920s.

Johnson was deeply committed to exposing the injustice and brutality imposed on African Americans throughout the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South. He labored with considerable success to put the NAACP on secure financial ground. He spent much time in Washington unsuccessfully lobbying to have Congress pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime. Finally, Johnson was a key figure in making the NAACP a clearinghouse for civil-rights court cases; he collaborated closely with such noted attorneys as Moorfield Storey, Louis Marshall, and Arthur Garfield Hayes in a series of cases defending African-American civil rights and attacking the legal structure of segregation. In all these efforts he worked closely with Walter White, whom he brought into the NAACP as his assistant and who succeeded him as secretary, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of Crisis, the NAACP monthly journal.

Johnson was probably better known in the 1920s for his literary efforts than for his leadership of the NAACP. He played an active role, as an author and as a supporter of young talent, in what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson urged writers and other artists to draw on everyday life in African-American communities for their creative inspiration. He played the role of a father figure to a number of young writers, including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, whose often blunt prose and poetry drew condemnation from more genteel critics.

His own work during this period included a widely praised anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), a volume that helped to give an identity to the "New Negro" movement. His continued interest in the African-American musical tradition found expression in two collections of spirituals that he and Rosamond brought out: The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1926. A year later Johnson published his poetic interpretation of African-American religion in God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, a theme he first developed in "O Black and Unknown Bards" (1908). The year 1927 also saw the reissuing of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Finally, Johnson published Black Manhattan (1930), the first history of African Americans in New York City.

In 1931 Johnson stepped down as secretary of the NAACP (though he remained on the association's board of directors) to become a professor at Fisk University. For the remainder of his life he spent the winter and spring terms in Nashville teaching creative writing and classes in American and African-American literature. The rest of the year the Johnsons largely spent in New York City. He remained active as a writer, publishing Along This Way, his autobiography, in 1933 and Negro Americans, What Now?, a work of social criticism, a year later. Johnson's unexpected death was the result of an automobile accident near Wiscasset, Maine.

Johnson took deserved pride in his accomplishments across a wide variety of careers: teacher, Broadway lyricist, poet, diplomat, novelist, and civil-rights leader. Though he suffered most of the indignities forced on African Americans during the Jim Crow era, Johnson retained his sense of self-worth; he proclaimed forcefully in Negro Americans, What Now? that "My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell." The defense of his "inner life" did not mean withdrawal, but active engagement. Thus Johnson was a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in making the NAACP a truly national organization capable of mounting the attack that eventually led to the dismantling of the system of segregation by law.

Maintaining his "inner life" also led Johnson to write both prose and poetry that has endured over the decades. "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written a century ago, can still be heard at African-American gatherings, and the title phrase appears on the U.S. postage stamp issued in 1988 to honor Johnson. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man has remained in print since its reissue in the 1920s, and it holds a significant place in the history of African-American fiction. Along This Way, also still in print after more than sixty years, is acknowledged as a classic American autobiography. Finally, God's Trombones, Johnson's celebration of the creativity found in African-American religion, has been adapted for the stage several times, most notably by Vinnette Carroll (as Trumpets of the Lord) in 1963.


The James Weldon Johnson Papers in the Beinecke Library, Yale University is the single most important primary source for the study of Johnson's life. Two other important manuscript collections are the NAACP Collection and the Booker T. Washington Papers, both in the Library of Congress. The standard biography is Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (1973). A briefer biography is Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson (1987). Sondra K. Wilson has edited a two-volume collection, The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (2 vols., 1995), making available much of his newspaper and magazine work.

Source:; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:29:47 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Return to James Weldon Johnson