James Weldon Johnson
) was an American
author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, early civil rights
activist, and prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance
. Johnson is best remembered for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and collections of folklore. He was also one of the first African-American
professors at New York University
. Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida
, the son of Helen Louise Dillet and James Johnson. Johnson was first educated by his mother (a musician and a public school teacher - the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school) and then at Edwin M. Stanton School
. At the age of 16 he enrolled at Atlanta University
, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there.
He served in several public capacities over the next 35 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry, and music. In 1904 Johnson went on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential Campaign. In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906-1908 and then Nicaragua from 1909-1913. In 1910 Johnson married Grace Nail, the daughter of a prosperous real estate developer from New York.In 1913 he changed his name officially from James William Johnson to James Weldon Johnson. He became a member of Sigma Pi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. at some point after its founding in 1914.
Today, James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Middle School is named after him. In 1916, Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP. In 1920, he became general secretary of the NAACP.
Education and Law
After graduation he returned to Stanton
, a school for African American students in Jacksonville, until 1906, where, at the young age of 23, he became principal. Johnson improved education by adding the ninth
and tenth grades
. In 1897, Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam
. In the 1930s Johnson became a Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University
, Tennessee where he lectured not only on literature but also on a wide range of issues to do with the life and civil rights of black American.
In 1899, Johnson moved to New York City
with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson
to work in musical theater
. Along with his brother, he produced such hits as "Tell Me, Dusky Maiden" and "Nobody's Looking but the Owl and the Moon". Johnson composed the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing
," originally written for a celebration of Lincoln's
birthday at Stanton School. This song would later become to be known - and adopted as such by the NAACP
- as the Negro National Anthem
. The song was entered into the Congressional Record
as the official African American National Hymn following the success of a 1990 rendition by singer Melba Moore
and a bevy of other recording artists. After successes with their songwriting and music the brothers worked at Broadway
and collaborated with producer and director Bob Cole
. Johnson also composed the opera Tolosa
with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson
which satirizes the U.S. annexation of the Pacific islands.
In 1906 Johnson was appointed US consul
of Puerto Cabello
, Venezuela. In 1909, he transferred to be the US consul of Corinto
, Nicaragua. During his work in the foreign service, Johnson became a published poet, with work printed in the magazine The Century Magazine
and in The Independent.
Literature and Anthology
During his six-year stay in South America he completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
which was published anonymously in 1912. It was only in 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship - stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional. Other works include The Book of American Negro Spirituals
(1925), Black Manhattan
(1930), his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the cultural scene of New York, and Negro Americans, What Now?
(1934), a book calling for civil rights for African Americans. Johnson was also an accomplished anthologist. Johnson's anthologies provided inspiration, encouragement, and recognition to the new generation of artists who would create the Harlem Renaissance
of the 1920s and 1930s.
The poetry of Johnson, Paul Lawrence Dunbar
, and the works of people like W.E.B Dubois
ignited the Harlem Renaissance
. In 1922, he edited The Book of American Negro Poetry
, which the Academy of American Poets calls "a major contribution to the history of African-American literature." One of the works for which he is best remembered today, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
, was published in 1927 and celebrates the tradition of the folk preacher
. In 1917, Johnson published 50 Years and Other Poems
While serving the NAACP
from 1920 through 1931 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history. Throughout the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance
trying to refute condescending white criticism and helping young black authors to get published. While serving in the NAACP Johnson was involved in sparking the drive behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill
Shortly before his death, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians. According to musical historian James Nathan Jones, the formation of the "American Negro Orchestra" (as it was then known) represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had had for thirty years."
James Weldon Johnson died in 1938 while on vacation in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.
Legacy and honors
Other works and collections
- James Weldon Johnson: Writings (William L. Andrews, editor) (The Library of America), 2004) ISBN 978-1-93108252-5.
- Yenser, Thomas (editor), Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, Brooklyn, New York, 1930-1931-1932 (Third Edition)
- The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford, 1997, p. 404 ff.