Johnson, James Weldon 1871–1938

views updated Jun 11 2018

James Weldon Johnson 18711938

Writer, lyricist, lawyer, consul, civil rights activist, educator

At a Glance

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Early 20th Century Political Activity

Became NAACP Leader

A Preserver of Culture

A Legacy of Hope

Selected writings


James Weldon Johnsons boundless energy and concern for the plight of African Americans combined to produce an extraordinary career. As a poet, journalist, social activist, and educator, Johnson sought new standards for the treatment of blacks in the early decades of the twentieth century. He was simultaneously a mainstream American writer, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a collector of the most poignant songs and poems produced by black Americans prior to 1930. In Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, Jean Wagner called Johnson doubtless one of the most distinguished and influential personalities the black world has ever known.

Johnson was a Renaissance man before the term was popular. He overcame enormous obstacles presented by white prejudice, earning a college degree, becoming certified as a Florida attorney, serving the U.S. government as a consul to foreign nations, and leading the NAACP in its determined opposition to lynchings and to Jim Crow legislation, which legalized segregation. He is also well remembered as a poet and a lyricist whose hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing became known as the Negro National Anthem. In his own time, Johnson was admired for his intellectual breadth, self-confidence, and leadership qualities. More than half a century after his death, he is recognized for his original contributions to American letters, his preservation of essential African American songs and poems, and his temperate civil rights agitation. Eugene Levy noted in an essay for Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century: In both roles [as literary figure and activist] Johnson fought to move beyond the severe constraints set by racial prejudice and discrimination to shape the attitudes and actions of both black and white Americans.

Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents had moved to the city from the North two years before his birth, and both had found jobs there. Johnsons father worked as the headwaiter at a posh resort hotel, and his mother was a schoolteacher and part-time musician. Young James therefore grew up amidst financial security in a family that stressed the dual goals of hard work and education. Wagner contended that in his home circle, Johnson learned to avoid both excessive fear of the white man and the tendency to esteem him too highly.

Even in a relatively tolerant city such as Jacksonville, Johnson

At a Glance

Born James William Johnson, June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, FL;changed middle name to Weldon, 1913; died of injuries suffered in an automobile accident, June 26, 1938, in Wiscasset, ME; buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY; son of James (a restaurant headwaiter) and Helen Louise (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Dillet) Johnson; married Grace Nail, February 3, 1910. Education: Atlanta University, A.B., 1894, A.M., 1904; graduate study at Columbia University.

Poet, novelist, editor, lyricist, civil rights leader, diplomat, lawyer, and teacher. Worked in Jacksonville, FL, as school principal, newspaper editor, teacher, and attorney, 1894-1901; moved to New York City, 1901, and wrote lyrics for musical theater in partnership with brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole; named U.S. consul to Venezuela, 1906, and to Nicaragua, 1909; retired from foreign service, 1913; writer for New York Age (newspaper), 1914-24; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), New York City, field secretary, 1916-20, executive secretary, 1920-30; professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1931-38.

Member: NAACP, American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, Academy of Political Science.

Selected awards: Spingarn Medal from NAACP, 1925; Harmon Gold Award forGods Trombones; Julius Rosenwald Fund grant, 1929; W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature, 1933. Johnson appeared on a 22-cent postal stamp as part of the Black Heritage USA series of the 1970s.

could only attend the segregated Stanton Central Grammar School where his mother taught. The school was not equipped to teach high school courses, so Johnson was forced to travel to Atlanta, Georgia, to complete his studies. He attended Atlanta University, eventually earning a secondary school diploma and then, in 1894, a bachelors degree. A decade later, he completed his masters degree at the same institution.

Johnsons mother had encouraged him to enjoy music, so from his childhood onward, he sang, played guitar, and performed songs. In Atlanta he appeared with the Atlanta University quartet, entertaining audiences with spirituals and lighter popular songs of the day. Johnsons involvement with music would eventually broaden his horizons and take him far from the dusty Southern city of his birth.

When Johnson graduated from college, he returned to Jacksonville as a teacher and principal of Stanton, where he began to demonstrate the enormous energy and social consciousness that would mark most of his adult life. First he expanded Stantons curriculum to include high school studies. Then, in 1895, he founded and co-edited the Daily American, the first black-oriented daily newspaper in America. The venture began bravely but folded after eight months. Nevertheless, the ambitious projectwith its agenda of black empowermentcaught the attention of prominent national leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Meanwhile Johnson decided to study law. With the help of a white attorney in Jacksonville, he prepared to take the Florida bar examinations. When he passed the bar on his first attempt in 1898, he became the first black attorney in the state of Florida since the days of Reconstruction. The last years of the nineteenth century found Johnson teaching, practicing law in Jacksonville, speaking for the black communitys interests, and writing poems and songs.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Late in 1899 Johnson was invited to give a speech at a local celebration of Abraham Lincolns birthday. Instead, he wrote a hymn for the occasion, and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music. Their composition, Lift Every Voice and Sing, was first performed by 500 Jacksonville school children in February of 1900. The song offers a moving and faithful cry from free blacks for a future of hope in America. Johnson is said to have considered the composition of the lyrics for Lift Every Voice and Sing to be the most satisfying accomplishment of his life.

Although Johnson and his brother did little to promote the song at first, it took on a life of its own. Soon it could be heard throughout the South in churches and on festive occasions. By 1920 it was so popular that the NAACP adopted it as a theme song. It was the best-known anthem of black America at least until the 1960s, when civil rights demonstrators popularized We Shall Overcome.

In 1901, Johnson and his brother left Jacksonville for New York City, where they sought work writing songs for the musical theater. They formed a partnership with Bob Cole and over the next five years composed some two hundred songs for Broadway and burlesque shows. Success came rapidly, and by 1904 the Johnson brothers and Bob Cole were well known in entertainment circles. Shows they had written toured America and Europe, giving them an opportunity to see the world. At home in New York they were minor celebrities. Even during this period, though, Johnson continued more scholarly pursuits. He took graduate courses at Columbia University and wrote poetry, some of it in black dialect, after the manner of his friend and fellow poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Early 20th Century Political Activity

Johnson had always been interested in politics. In 1904 he helped to found a Colored Republican Club in New York City, and he worked actively for the election of Republican presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt. One of his contributions to the campaign was a spirited song he wrote for Roosevelt. The songand Johnsons other activities on behalf of the Republican partystrengthened his ties to those in political power. One of Johnsons friends, social activist and Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington, helped him to earn an official position with the Roosevelt administration as U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Johnson began his duties there in 1906.

With few official chores in his tropical posting, Johnson had plenty of time to write. He completed numerous poems and his only novel, The Autobiography of an ExColoured Man, during his three years in Venezuela. Some of his poetry was published in monthly magazines back in America, and the novel appeared in print without Johnsons name as early as 1912. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a melancholy fictional memoir of a light-skinned black man who reluctantly chooses to pass for white after witnessing a brutal lynching in the rural South. Johnsons subject matter was not new, but his story managed to bring depth to its main character and address perplexing moral questions. When the novel was published under Johnsons name in 1922, some people believed it was truly an autobiography. That led the author to write his real life story, Along This Way, in 1933.

In 1909, Johnson was promoted to a consular post in Corinto, Nicaragua. There he found himself in a turbulent political climate that culminated in the landing of United States troops in Corinto in 1912. That same year, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, took office as president. Johnson felt little hope of advancement under the new administration, so he resigned from the civil service in 1913.

He returned to New York City and found a job as editorial writer for the New York Age, a prestigious and well-established black newspaper. According to Levy, Johnson developed in his early columns a call for action by examining such issues as residential segregation, lynching, and the need for racial pride, making known to his readers that he believed in forthright, explicit protest. Specifically, Johnson urged blacks to use the power of the press as a weapon in the fight for equality. Levy quoted him as having said: The greatest thing the American Negro gained as a result of the Civil War and the amendments to the Constitution was the right to contend for his rights.

Politically, however, Johnson was a conservative who shunned the notion of black separatist movements. As much as he extolled black culture and achievements, wrote Levy, he did not believe blacks could gain both their full rights and economic opportunity without the aid of whites.

Became NAACP Leader

That belief would be tested as the years passed. In 1916 Johnson accepted the newly created post of field secretary of the NAACP. His duties included investigating incidents of racial discrimination and organizing new NAACP branches across the country. The organization grew tremendously between 1917 and 1930 and provided a nucleus of opposition to the growing trend toward white supremacist legislation and brutal lynchings.

From 1920 until 1930 Johnson served as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, replacing white chief executive John R. Shillady, who suffered considerable psychological trauma after being beaten by a mob of bigoted whites in Austin, Texas, because of his work on behalf of blacks. Johnsons deft skills of communication with both blacks and whitesserved him well in his new position. Membership in the NAACP continued to grow, and the organization gained influence in both judicial and legislative arenas. Johnson worked fervently to get a bill passed by the federal government that would end lynching, and he oversaw challenges to Jim Crow laws that moved to the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, for all the advances he made, little actual progress was made for black civil rights in the national halls of justice during Johnsons tenure with the NAACP. In fact, the demise of his federal anti-lynching bill caused him to become disillusioned with the American political system in general and led to his break with the Republican party.

The 1920s proved to be a difficult time for black Americans. The Ku Klux Klan attracted vast membership in the North as well as the South, and separate but equal became state law in many places. These setbacks helped to move Johnson toward his more radical political philosophy. From the podium and from the pages of magazines he urged blacks to organize and vote in strength. He continued to call for more and better education for black citizens. Most important, however, he began to use black poetry and song as a means to communicate to the white majority. Wagner stated: [Johnsons] most eminent services to his race were his labors to make known the cultural achievements of the Negro past. In this way he also had a decisive influence on the development of the Negro Renaissance.

A Preserver of Culture

Johnson collected verse in an important work called The Book of American Negro Poetry. Then he turned to spiritualsblack Christian hymns, some of them quite oldand published The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals the next year. He encouraged young poets and novelists and was himself identified with the flowering of black creative writing in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance. His essays for mainstream periodicals such as the New York Times, Harpers, and the Nation won him the recognition of the leading journalists of the time, including H. L. Mencken and Mark Van Doren.

Johnsons groundbreaking creative work Gods Trombones was published in 1927. The book consists of free verse sermons in the style of black evangelistic ministers discourse, written not in dialect but conventional English. Johnson claimed that Gods Trombones was his attempt to preserve an essential artistic formthe black sermonfor future generations of readers. In a review for Phylon magazine in 1960, Eugenia W. Collier wrote of Gods Trombones: The sensitive reader cannot fail to hear the rantings of the fire-and-brimstone preacher; the extremely sensitive reader may even hear the unwritten Amens of the congregation.

In 1930 Johnson retired from his demanding post at the NAACP and took a part-time teaching position at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. During the later years of his life, he taught creative writing at both Fisk and at New York University. He also published his autobiography, Along This Way; a serious study of black art and music called Black Manhattan; and another volume of poetry, Saint Peter Relates an Incident. The title poem of the latter work concerns the opening of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Judgment Day. A crowd waits to see the honored but unknown military hero buried there and is astonished when a black man emerges. Johnson wrote the poem in response to unfair treatment accorded the mothers of deceased black soldiers on a nationally sponsored trip to Europe.

A Legacy of Hope

Johnson died in 1938 when an automobile in which he was riding was struck by a train in rural Maine. More than 2000 mourners attended his Harlem funeral. He was buried in Brooklyns Greenwood Cemetery holding a copy of Gods Trombones in his hands.

Throughout his long and busy life, Johnson strove to end discrimination in America. By example and exhortation, he encouraged African Americans to become educated, to express themselves creatively, and to work hard for political power. Above all else, he was a staunch advocate of black pride, empowerment, and self-assertion, but he simultaneously called for interracial communication and cooperation. Johnson was not the man to throw down the gauntlet to America, wrote Wagner. He preferred to appeal to its reason and to persuade it that, since blacks and whites are irrevocably destined to live in association, the welfare of one group can only be maintained through assuring the welfare of another.

That idea forms the theme of many of Johnsons poems and songs, especially Lift Every Voice and Sing. It is one of the many lasting contributions to black America made by James Weldon Johnson, songwriter, poet, civil rights leader, and shining example of advancement against phenomenal odds.

Selected writings

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (novel), 1912, reprinted, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Fifty Years and Other Poems, Cornhill, 1917.

(Editor) The Book of American Negro Poetry, Harcourt, 1922, reprinted, 1969.

(Editor) The Book of American Negro Spirituals, Viking, 1925.

(Editor) The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals, Viking, 1926.

Gods Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (poetry), Viking, 1927, reprinted, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Black Manhattan (nonfiction), Knopf, 1930, reprinted, Da Capo, 1991.

Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson , Viking, 1933, reprinted, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Negro Americans, What Now? (nonfiction), Viking, 1934, reprinted, Da Capo, 1973.

Saint Peter Relates an Incident (poetry), Viking, 1935.

Lyricist for numerous songs, including Lift Every Voice and Sing, 1900, published by Walker and Company, 1993. Contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines.



Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

Black Writers, Gale, 1989.

Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1958.

Bronz, Stephen H., Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, Libra, 1964.

Fleming, Robert E., James Weldon Johnson, Twayne, 1987.

Franklin, John Hope, An Illustrated History of Black Americans, Time-Life Books, 1970.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, editors, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Johnson, James Weldon, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, Viking Penguin, 1990.

Levy, Eugene, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, Chicago University Press, 1973.

Logan, Rayford W., and Michael R. Winston, editors, Dictionary of American Negro Biography, Norton, 1982.

Smythe, Mabel M., editor, The Black American Reference Book, Prentice Hall, 1976.

Tolbert-Rouchaleau, Jane, James Weldon Johnson, Chelsea House, 1988.

Wagner, Jean, Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated from original French by Kenneth Douglas, University of Illinois Press, 1973.


Crisis, June 1971.

Nation, July 2, 1938.

Newsweek, July 4, 1938.

New York Times, June 28, 1938, p. 18.

Phylon, December 1960.

Time, July 4, 1938.

Mark Kram

Johnson, James Weldon

views updated May 17 2018

Johnson, James Weldon

June 17, 1871
June 26, 1938

Writer and political leader James William Johnson, who changed his middle name to Weldon in 1913, was born in Jacksonville, Florida. James, Sr., his father, the headwaiter at a local hotel, accumulated substantial real estate holdings and maintained a private library. Helen Dillet Johnson, his mother, a native of Nassau in the Bahamas, was the only African-American woman teaching in Jack-sonville's public schools. Through his parents' example, the opportunity to travel, and his reading, Johnson developed the urbanity and the personal magnetism that characterized his later political and literary career.

Johnson graduated in 1894 from Atlanta University, an all-black institution that he credited with instilling in him the importance of striving to better the lives of his people. Returning to Jacksonville, he traveled many different roads to fulfill that sense of racial responsibility. Appointed principal of the largest school for African Americans in Florida, he developed a high-school curriculum. At the same time he founded a short-lived newspaper, the Daily American (18951896); studied law; passed the bar examination; and wrote lyrics for the music of his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. In 1900 the brothers collaborated on "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a song that is regarded as the Negro National Anthem.

Johnson moved to New York in 1902 to work on the vaudeville circuit with his brother and his brother's partner, Robert Cole. Called by one critic the "ebony Offenbachs," the songwriting team of Cole, Johnson, and Johnson was one of the most successful in the country. (The 1902 song "Under the Bamboo Tree" was their greatest success.) The team tried to avoid stereotypical representations of blacks and invest their songs with some dignity and humanity, as well as humor.

While his brother toured with Cole, James Weldon Johnson studied literature at Columbia University and became active in New York City politics. In 1904, in a political association dominated by Booker T. Washington, Johnson became the treasurer of the city's Colored Republican Club. The Republican Party rewarded his service with an appointment to the U.S. Consular Service in 1906. Johnson served first as U.S. consul at Porto Cabello, Venezuela, and then, from 1908 to 1913, in Corinto, Nicaragua.

In Venezuela Johnson completed his first and only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). Published anonymously, it was taken by many readers for a true autobiography. That realism marks an important transition from the nineteenth- to the twentieth-century African-American novel. Johnson brought modern literary techniques to his retelling of the popular nineteenth-century "tragic mulatto" theme.

The election of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to the presidency blocked Johnson's advancement in the consular service. He returned to New York, where in 1914 he joined the New York Age as an editorial writer. While he was associated with the politics of Booker T. Washington, Johnson's instincts were more radical and he gravitated toward the NAACP. In 1916 the NAACP hired him as a field secretary, charged with organizing or reviving local branches. In that post, he greatly expanded and solidified the still-fledgling organization's branch operations and helped to increase its membership, influence, and revenue. He also took an active role organizing protests against racial discrimination, including the racial violence of the "Red Summer" of 1919, a phrase he coined.

Shortly after he joined the staff of the NAACP, Johnson published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917). Like the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Johnson's poetry falls into two broad categories: poems in standard English and poems in a conventionalized African-American dialect. Although he used dialect, he also argued that dialect verse possessed a limited range for racial expression. His poems in standard English include some of his most important early contributions to African-American letters. Poems such as "Brothers" and "White Witch" are bitter protests against lynching that anticipate the poetry of Claude McKay in the 1920s and the fiction of Richard Wright in the 1930s and 1940s.

During the 1920s Johnson's political and artistic activities came together. He was appointed secretary of the NAACP's national office in 1920. His tenure brought coherence and consistency to the day-to-day operations of the association and to his general political philosophy. He led the organization in its lobbying for the passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and in its role in several legal cases; his report on the conditions of the American occupation of Haiti prompted a Senate investigation. Johnson's leadership helped to establish the association as a major national civil rights organization committed to accomplishing its goals through lobbying for legislation and seeking legal remedies through the courts. In 19271928 and again in 1929, he took a leave of absence from the NAACP. During the latter period he helped organize the consortium of Atlanta University and Spelman and More-house Colleges.

Also in the 1920s Johnson, with such colleagues at the NAACP as W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Jessie Fauset, maintained that the promotion of the artistic and literary creativity of African Americans went hand-in-hand with political activism, that the recognition of blacks in the arts broke down racial barriers. Their advocacy of black artists in the pages of Crisis, and with white writers, publishers, and critics, established an audience for the flourishing of African-American literature during the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson himself published an anthology of African-American poetry, The Book of Negro Poetry (1922, rev. 1931), and he and his brother edited two volumes of The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925 and 1926). In his introductions to these anthologies and in critical essays, he argued for a distinct African-American creative voice that was expressed by both professional artists and the anonymous composers of the spirituals. Black Manhattan (1930) was a pioneering "cultural history" that promoted Harlem as the cultural capital of black America.

Johnson was not in the conventional sense either a pious or a religious man, but he consistently drew on African-American religious expressions for poetic inspiration. In such early poems as "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," "O Black and Unknown Bards," and "100 Years," he formulated a secular version of the vision of hope embodied in spirituals and gospel songs. His second volume of poetry, God's Trombones (1927), drew on the African-American vernacular sermon. Using the rhythms, syntax, and figurative language of the African-American preacher, Johnson devised a poetic expression that reproduced the richness of African-American language without succumbing to the stereotypes that limited his dialect verse.

In 1930 Johnson resigned as secretary of the NAACP to take up a teaching post at Fisk University and pursue his literary career. His autobiography, Along This Way, was published in 1933; his vision of racial politics, Negro Americans, What Now?, was published in 1934; and his third major collection of poetry, Saint Peter Relates an Incident, was published in 1935. He was killed in an automobile accident.

See also Du Bois, W. E. B.; McKay, Claude; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Negro National Anthem; Poetry, U.S.; Politics in the United States; Red Summer; Washington, Booker T.; Wright, Richard


Andrews, William L., ed. James Weldon Johnson: Writings. New York: Library of America, 2004.

Fleming, Robert E., ed. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

george p. cunningham (1996)
Updated bibliography

Johnson, James Weldon

views updated Jun 08 2018


James Weldon Johnson was a key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) between 1916 and 1930, and helped transform that organization into the leading African–American civil rights advocacy group in the United States. Johnson's efforts as NAACP field secretary greatly increased the number of NAACP branches and members, and his work as executive secretary during the 1920s expanded the association's lobbying, litigation, fund-raising, and publicity campaigns. Johnson was also a highly accomplished writer and played a vital role in the African–American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson was born June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents, James Johnson and Helen Louise Dillette Johnson, encouraged his pursuit of education, and he graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. He then took a job as principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, where he established a high school program.

He studied law with a white lawyer in his spare time, and in 1898 was admitted to the Florida bar. He also wrote lyrics for songs composed by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. In 1900 the two wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which later became known as the "Negro National Anthem." The two brothers moved to New York in 1902 and went on to become a highly successful songwriting team.

Johnson became involved in New York politics. In 1904 he became treasurer of the city's Colored Republican Club, helping with the campaign to reelect theodore roosevelt to the presidency. On the recommendation of w. e. b. du bois, an African–American scholar and civil rights leader, Johnson was named U.S. consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. Two years later he was appointed consul to Corinto, Nicaragua. He remained in that position until 1913, when he resigned. Johnson believed that the election of woodrow wilson, a Democrat, to the presidency, as well as significant racial prejudice, would interfere with his advancement in the consular service. In 1910 he married Grace Nail. The couple had no children.

Johnson returned to New York and in 1914 became an editorialist and columnist at the New York Age newspaper. Two years later he was offered a position as field secretary for the NAACP, which was founded in 1909 to improve the situation of African Americans. In that office Johnson traveled widely and did much to help the NAACP grow from nine thousand members in 1916 to ninety thousand in 1920. Under Johnson's direction the number of branches multiplied rapidly as well. In the South, where NAACP activity had been weak, the number of branches increased from 3 to 131. Johnson also spoke widely on the subject of racial discrimination, and he organized NAACP protests. In 1917 he coordinated a silent march in New York to protest lynching of African Americans and other forms of racial oppression. Throughout his tenure at the NAACP, he remained committed to keeping it an interracial organization, seeking the membership and aid of whites as well as blacks.

By 1920 Johnson had risen to executive secretary of the NAACP, the organization's highest leadership position. Under his guidance the NAACP publicized the continued lynching of African Americans, which the organization estimated had caused the death of three thousand people between 1889 and 1919. Johnson directed the NAACP's support of the 1921 Dyer antilynching bill (which did not become law), labor union movements, and policies to improve living and working conditions for African Americans. In addition, Johnson issued an influential report on the U.S. occupation of Haiti occurring at that time. Furthermore, Johnson was a highly successful fund-raiser.

Johnson's leadership greatly increased the NAACP's influence on U.S. law. He helped expand the organization's campaigns to end laws and practices that segregated African Americans and denied them basic freedoms such as the right to vote. Under Johnson's leadership the NAACP successfully argued Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S. Ct. 446, 71 L. Ed. 759 (1927), before the Supreme Court. The decision held that a whites-only democratic party primary in Texas was unconstitutional, and marked a significant step toward establishing equal voting rights for African Americans.

In 1930 Johnson resigned from the NAACP to become a professor of creative literature and

writing at Fisk University, in Nashville. Johnson's writings include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1913), a novel; three volumes of poetry; Black Manhattan (1930), a history of African Americans in New York; Along This Way (1933), an autobiography; and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a treatise on the situation of African Americans. He edited three influential anthologies: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926), the last two with his brother.

"The dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every coloured man in the United States … forces [him] to take his outlook on all things, not from the view-point of a citizen, or man, or even a human being, but from the view-point of a coloured man."
James Weldon Johnson

Johnson received much recognition during his lifetime, including honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (1925). He was killed in a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938.

further readings

Fleming, Robert E. 1987. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne.

Johnson, James Weldon. 2000. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Da Capo Press.

Levy, Eugene. 1982. "James Weldon Johnson and the Development of the NAACP." Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Edited by John H. Franklin. Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press.

James Weldon Johnson

views updated May 23 2018

James Weldon Johnson

African American man of letters James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was also a teacher, politician, and lawyer. He is best known for his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and a book of poems, God's Trombones.

On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Fla. His father, a restaurant headwaiter, was entirely self-taught; his mother was a musician and school teacher. After taking his bachelor of arts degree at Atlanta University in 1894, Johnson taught in the public school for blacks in Jacksonville. Meanwhile he studied law and helped establish the first daily African American newspaper in his native city.

In 1898 Johnson joined his older brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in New York City. Collaborating with his brother, a skilled musician, he wrote such hits as "Tell Me, Dusky Maiden," "Nobody's Looking but the Owl and the Moon," and "Oh, Didn't He Ramble." Some of Johnson's early poetry was published in the Century and the Bookman. He took his master of arts degree from Atlanta University in 1904.

Returning from a European theatrical tour in 1904, Johnson joined Theodore Roosevelt's successful presidential campaign and was rewarded with the appointment as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1907. Two years later he went to Nicaragua in this same capacity. There he wrote his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. First published in 1912, the book established Johnson's concern with the social problems that beset black people and his commitment to finding solutions. He had married Grace Nail in 1910.

In 1916 Johnson joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, becoming general secretary in 1920, continued there until 1930. He was a militant crusader for black Americans, demanding political and cultural equality. Though his fight for congressional passage of the Dyer Antilynching Bill was unsuccessful, it stirred the South to action to abolish lynching.

Johnson's Fifty Years and Other Poems was published in 1917, and in 1920 a book on politics, Self-determining Haiti, appeared. He presented the Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. This was a pioneering anthology, like his Book of American Negro Spirituals, which, with piano arrangements by his brother, appeared in 1925. (The two volumes had their ninth printing in 1964). But the book that brought him national attention as a poet was God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). Here Johnson broke new literary ground by discarding Negro dialect, employing instead the "native idiom of Negro speech" without distortion. Black Manhattan, a kind of memoir, was published in 1930, the year Johnson became professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He was also visiting professor of creative literature at New York University from 1934 until his death. His autobiography, Along This Way (1933), went through eight printings in 10 years. His last book, St. Peter Relates an Incident (1935), is a poetic satire on race prejudice.

Johnson won the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro literature in 1934, the Spingarn Medal twice, and the Harmon Award for distinguished achievement. He died in an automobile accident on June 26, 1938. In 1950 the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters was founded in the Yale University Library.

Further Reading

Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933) is the best factual source. Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930) gives additional material. Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P.Davis, and Ulysses Lee, Negro Caravan (1940), and James A. Emanuel and Theodore Gross, eds., Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968), contain brief critical treatment. More extensive treatment is in Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939).

Additional Sources

Egypt, Ophelia Settle, James Weldon Johnson, New York, Crowell 1974.

Johnson, James Weldon, Along this way: the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1990. □

Johnson, James Weldon

views updated May 23 2018

Johnson, James Weldon

Johnson, James Weldon, black American man of letters, brother of J(ohn) Rosamond Johnson; b. Jacksonville, Fla., June 17, 1871; d. in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine, June 26, 1938. He studied literature at Atlanta Univ. (B.A., 1894; M.A., 1904), and also passed the Fla. bar examination to practice law (1897). As a poet, he began writing texts to his brother’s compositions; their song Lift Every Voice and Sing (1900) proved popular, becoming known as “the Negro National Anthem.” The brothers settled in N.Y. in 1902, where they joined Bob Cole in the enormously successful songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Bros. Among their hit songs, mostly in black dialect, were Under the Bamboo Tree (1902), which was parodied by T.S. Eliot in “Fragment of the Agon,” and Congo Love Song (1903). Under the pseudonym Will Handy, they produced Oh, Didn’t He Ramble (1902), which became a jazz standard; the team’s success was such that they became known as “Those Ebony Offenbachs.” Johnson was then active as a diplomat (1906–14), serving as consul to Venezuela and, later, to Nicaragua. His tr. of Granados’Goyescas was used for the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of this work. He publ.anonymously the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Boston, 1912), which includes vivid descriptions of the ragtime era in N.Y. He collaborated with his brother in compiling 2 books of American Negro spirituals (N.Y., 1926 and 1927); wrote Black Manhattan (N.Y., 1930), a history of blacks in N.Y. which includes valuable information on black musical life; also publ. an autobiography, Along This Way (1931). His papers are on deposit at Yale Univ.


E. Levy, J.W. J. (Chicago, 1973).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

About this article

James Weldon Johnson

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic