Life Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

Image: James Weldon Johnson – Portrait  by Laura Wheeler Waring

James Weldon Johnson was a Renaissance man; not only did he write some the most memorable poems and songs in the American canon, he also served as a teacher, a lawyer, a diplomat, and a political activist in the Republican Party, helping to secure civil rights for black Americans.

Early Life and Education

On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, to James Johnson, a Virginian, who served as the headwaiter at a resort hotel, and Helen Louise Dillet, a Bahamian, who served as the first black, female educator in the state of Florida.  

The Weldons raised their son to be a strong and independent.  James remained a free-thinking individual as his parents had instilled in him the knowledge that he could achieve any level of success for which  he desired to strive. 

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after completing his bachelor’s degree in 1894, he took the position as principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School, in which his mother had served as a teacher.  As principal of Stanton, Johnson made vast improvements in the curriculum, and he also added grades 9 and 10.

As Johnson served the school and community as principal, he founded a newspaper, The Daily American, which remained in circulation for only a year, but which, fortunately for his future in activism, provided a platform for bringing the young activist to the attention of the two prominent individuals of the civil rights movement, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. 

In 1896, Johnson began a study of the law in Thomas Ledwith’s law office in Jacksonville, Florida.  He then passed the bar in 1898, becoming the first black ever admitted to the bar in Florida.  He practiced law for only a few years before deciding to pursue other fields of endeavor.

New York City to the Diplomatic Corp

In 1901, James and brother Rosamond relocated to New York City, where they pursued a career in songwriting.  They partnered with Bob Cole, winning a publishing contract that paid them a monthly stipend of $1200, a fortune back in the early 20th century.  

During the next five years, they wrote and produced about 200 song for Broadway and other formats.  Their hits included such titles as  “Didn’t He Ramble,” “Under the Bamboo Tree,” and “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground.”

The Johnson brothers along with Bob Cole garnered a stellar reputation as a musical trio, and they were affectionately labeled, “Those Ebony Offenbachs.”  While eschewing the practice of creating minstrel show stereotypes, the trio did condescend to create simplified creations of black life of rustics for white audiences who demanded such fare.  

But their more important contribution to music included a suite of six songs titled The Evolution of Ragtime, which has remained an important documentary of the black experience in contributing to music.

Living in New York also afforded Johnson the convenience of attending Columbia University, where he studied literature and creative writing in a formal setting.  

He also began his activism in Republican Party politics.  Serving as the treasurer of New York’s Colored Republican Club, he composed two songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, which Roosevelt won becoming the 26h president of the United States.

After the black national civil rights leadership separated into two factions, one conservative lead by Booker T. Washington and the other radical, headed up by W.E.B. Du Bois, Johnson choose to follow Washington and the conservatives.  

Washington’s leadership had exerted just the right influence that helped Roosevelt win the presidency.  Thus, that influence was exerted again to have Johnson appointed to the US consulate in Venezuela.  

Johnson’s stint in that South American country afforded him time to write poetry.  He composed his beautiful, nearly perfect sonnet, “Mother Night,” during this time.  Also during this three year of services as consul, Johnson was able to finish his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.  

After Johnson’s stint in Venezuela, he was promoted and relocated to Nicaragua, where his more demanding job meant he had little time for his literary efforts.

Back to New York and the Harlem Renaissance

In 1900, James Weldon Johnson composed the hymn, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” for a school celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. His brother later added a melody to the lyric, and in 1919, the NAACP designated it the “Negro National Hymn (Anthem).”

In 1913, with the inauguration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Johnson resigned from foreign service and returned to the USA.  In New York, Johnson began serving as a writer for New York’s most prestigious black newspaper, the New York Age, where he composed essays touting the importance of education and hard-work.  

His conservative stance put him more in line with Booker T. Washington than with radical militant W.E.B. Du Bois.  Nevertheless, Johnson managed to remain on good terms with both men, despite the politics that divided them.  

In 1916, Johnson took on the role as secretary for the NAACP, after Du Bois suggested that position to Johnson.  In 1920, Johnson headed the organization as president.

Despite his heavy activist duties with the  NAACP, Johnson began writing full time. In 1917, he brought out his first collection of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems, which receivedcritical acclaim and helped establish him as an important member of the Harem Renaissance Movement.  

He continued his writing and publishing; he also served as the editor for numerous volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).  

Johnson’s second book of poems titled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927, again receiving much praise from critics.  Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a best-selling author and an activist for education reform, remarked in a letter about Johnson’s style:

. . . heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed.

Back to Teaching

After retiring from the NAACP, Johnson continued his writing and later served as professor  at New York University.  Again Johnson’s stellar reputation preceded him as he joined the NYU faculty, as Deborah Shapiro has testified:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

Johnson’s Death

In 1938, age 67, sadly, Johnson was killed in an accident in Wiscasset, Maine, after a train crashed into the automobile in which the poet was a passenger.  His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people.  

Johnson’s creative power rendered him a true “renaissance man,” who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American literary scene.

Johnson’s life creed offers an uplifting inspiration after which anyone might want to chisel their life:  

I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell. 

Johnson’s body is interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  Unconventionally, his body is arrayed in his favorite lounging cape, while his hands are clutching a copy of his God’s Trombones.



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