Born In: Jacksonville, Florida
Died On: June 26, 1938
Career: Educator, Lawyer, Diplomat, Songwriter, Writer, Anthropologist, Poet, Activist
James Weldon Johnson was an influential and notable novelist, poet, and songwriter, as well as a lawyer. A United States consul in a foreign nation, he went on to actively combat racism through his esteemed position in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also became the first African-American professor at New York University. Even today, he is best known for his role as the executive secretary of NAACP, where through lobbying, litigation, fund-raising and publicity campaigns, he brought to light the evil treatment meted out to the blacks in America in the form of racism, lynching and segregation. Despite his role as an activist, his philosophy was to strengthen the society through art and culture. He himself was an accomplished writer and played a pivotal role in the African-American literary movement, known as Harlem Renaissance.
James Weldon Johnson was the son of James Johnson, a headwaiter and Helen Louise Dillet, the first female black public school teacher in Florida, both of whose roots were in Nassau, Bahamas. He was the second among three children. His immense interest in reading as well as music was highly encouraged by his parents. His mother took the initiative to impart him the knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. The achievement of his father as a headwaiter at a luxury hotel gave enough self confidence to James to pursue a professional career.
Johnson got enrolled at the Atlanta University at the age of 16 and graduated in the year 1894. The academic training that he received during his years at Atlanta University was what Johnson regarded as the primary thrust to dedicate all his resources for the well being of the black people. He received an honorary master’s degree in 1904. Johnson also became a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.
Educator & Songwriter
In 1895, a year after he graduated, Johnson founded a newspaper called the Daily American, designed to educate Jacksonville’s adult black community. However, financial curbs forced it to shut down within eight months of its inauguration. He returned to Stanton, a school for African American students in Jacksonville where his mother taught and until 1906 rendered his services. At the young age of 23, Johnson was elected as the principal of Stanton. He improved the educational standards of the school by adding ninth and tenth grades. Subjects like algebra, English composition, physical geography, bookkeeping, geometry, English literature, elementary physics, history and Spanish were included. In 1897, while serving as the principal, Johnson became the first African American in Duval County to pass the bar exam in Florida.
In the same year, Johnson’s younger brother, John Rosamond, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music. He, along with Johnson, began working on a musical theatre. They experimented with a comic opera called “Tolosa”, but their efforts to produce it in New York in 1899 failed. However, the attempt ignited Johnson’s creative energy enough. Soon, he began writing lyrics to which his brother composed music. The song “Lift every voice and sing” went on to become the Negro National Anthem. They teamed up with Bob Cole to write songs and in 1902, Johnson resigned from his post as principal and the two brothers came to New York to strengthen their partnership in a full-fledged manner. Johnson enjoyed extraordinary success as a songwriter for Broadway shows, and soon moved to the elite African American society in Brooklyn city. It was here that he met his future wife Grace Neil.
Diplomat & Poet
In the year 1904, Johnson went on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign. Later, Roosevelt appointed Johnson as the U.S consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906-1908 and then in Nicaragua from 1909-1913. While in Nicaragua, he married Grace Nail in the year 1910. They had met years ago in New York when Johnson was working as a songwriter. Grace Neil was a cultured and well-educated New Yorker, who worked along with her husband on screenwriting projects. During his years in Nicaragua, he completed his famous novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”, which was anonymously published in 1912.
Johnson was unable to secure a desirable diplomatic post any longer and thus, resigned from his consulship in 1913. He returned to United States in 1913 and after spending a year in Jacksonville, he came to New York and became an editorial writer for the New York Age. In the year 1917, he published his first collection of poetry, “Fifty Years and Other Poems”. The title poem, when published in New York Times, won considerable accolades. Johnson's second collection of poetry, “God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse”, was published in 1927 and happened to be his last significant attempt of creative endeavor.
Activist & Anthropologist
In the year 1916, Johnson was offered the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP. He proved to be an effective organizer, and went on to become the executive secretary of the NAACP in 1920. While serving in this position, Johnson drew considerable attention to the muck in the society in the form of racism, lynching, and segregation. His administrative duties were taking a toll at him and he resigned after serving for years. In 1930, he accepted the Spence chair of Creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville. This position was especially created for him, recognizing his world-class achievements as a poet, editor and critic during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Besides literature, he gave lectures on a variety of issues including the civil rights of black Americans.
Although his duty-bound life seldom allowed him enough time to write, Johnson assembled three ground-breaking anthologies, “The Book of American Negro Poetry” (1922), “The Book of American Negro Spirituals” (1925), and “The Second Book of Negro Spirituals” (1926), each of which were highly acclaimed. His other books include “Black Manhattan” (1930), which was the history of blacks in New York, “Along this Way” (1933), considered to be his true autobiography, and “Negro Americans, What Now?” (1934), which argued, that integration was the only viable solution to solve America’s racial issues.
Johnson died on 26 June 1938 near his summer home in Wiscasset, Maine, when his car collided with a train. The funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.
Awards & Legacy
- He was awarded Springarn Medal from NAACP, in the year 1925 for outstanding achievement by an American Negro.
- He won the Harmon Gold Award for God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.
- He received the Julius Rosenwald Fund Grant, 1929.
- He was also honored with the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature, 1933, named after first incumbent of Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University.
- He was rewarded with honorary doctorates from Talladega College and Howard University.
- The James Weldon Johnson Middle School is named in the honor of Weldon Johnson.
- On February 2, 1988, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in the honor of James Weldon Johnson.
- In 2002, James Weldon Johnson was listed among the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante.
1871: Born in Jacksonville, Florida
1894: Graduated from Atlanta University
1897: First black admitted to Florida bar
1899: Wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing" with his brother
1906: Appointed US consul, Puerto Cabello, Venezuela
1909: Appointed US consul, Corinto, Nicaragua
1920: Appointed executive secretary of NAACP
1921: Wrote first novel: "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"
1922: Collected poems of black poets in "The Book of American Negro Poetry."
1927: With brother Rosamond, published "God's Trombones"
1930: Became professor at Fisk University
1933: Wrote autobiography, "Along This Way"
1938: Died in automobile accident in Maine