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James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) by Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977), 1943. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration and Wikimedia Commons.

James Weldon Johnson
Born June 17, 1871(1871-Template:MONTHNUMBER-17)
Jacksonville, Florida
Died June 26, 1938(1938-Template:MONTHNUMBER-26) (aged 67)
Wiscasset, Maine
Occupation educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, writer, anthropologist, poet, activist
Nationality United States American
Literary movement Harlem Renaissance
Notable work(s) Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 - June 26, 1938) was an African-American poet, novelist, and civil rights leader.



Johnson is remembered for his leadership within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as for his writing. He was also 1 of the 1st African-American professors at New York University.

Youth and education[]

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise (Dillet) and James Johnson. His brother was the composer J. Rosamond Johnson.

James was educated by his mother (a musician and a public school teacher, the 1st female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school) and then at Edwin M. Stanton School. His mother imparted to him her considerable love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music.[1]

The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida's original winter havens, gave young Jimmie the wherewithal and the self-confidence to pursue a professional career.

At the age of 16 he enrolled at Atlanta University[2] Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust given him in the expectation that he would dedicate his resources to black people(Citation needed). Johnson was also a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity[1]

In the summer of 1891 the Atlanta University freshman went to a rural district in Georgia to instruct the children of former slaves. "In all of my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia," Johnson wrote. "I was thrown for the first time on my own resources and abilities."[1]

While attending Atlanta University Johnson became known as an influential campus speaker. He won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory in 1892. The contest topic was "The Best Methods of Removing the Disabilities of Caste from the Negro".

Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894.[3] In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there.[2]


After graduation he returned to Stanton, a school for African American students in Jacksonville. Johnson founded the newspaper the Daily American in 1895 and became its editor. The newspaper concerned both political and racial topics. It was terminated a year later due to financial difficulty. These early endeavors were the start of what would prove to be a long period of activism.

While working as a teacher, Johnson also read the law to prepare for the bar. In 1897, he was the 1st African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era ended, and the 1st black in Duval co. to seek admission to the state bar. In order to be accepted, Johnson had a 2-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that an examine, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room.[3] Johnson drew on his law background especially during his years as a civil rights activist and leading the NAACP.

In 1901, 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. After successes with their songwriting and music the brothers worked 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.[4] Enjoying unusual success as a songwriter for Broadway shows, Johnson moved easily in the upper echelons of African American society in Brooklyn, New York where he met his future wife, Grace Nail.[1]

Johnson became further involved with political activism during 1904 when he accepted a position as the treasurer of the Colored Republican Club started by Charles W. Anderson. A year later he became the president of the club. His duties as president included organizing political rallies.[3] In 1904 Johnson worked on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential campaign.

In 1906, at the young age of 23, he became principal of Stanton. As principal Johnson found himself the head of the largest public school in Jacksonville regardless of race. For his work Johnson received a paycheck less than half of what was offered to a white colleague possessing a comparable position. Johnson improved education by adding the 9th and 10th grades. Algebra, English composition, physical geography and bookkeeping were a part of the added 9th grade course. The 10th grade course consisted of geometry, English literature, elementary physics, history and Spanish. Johnson later resigned from his position as principal.[3]

Roosevelt appointed Johnson as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, 1906-1908. In 1909, Johnson was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua.[3] During his stay at Corinto a rebellion occurred against President Adolfo Diaz. Johnson proved himself an effective diplomat under times of strain.[3] During his work in the foreign service, Johnson became a published poet, with work printed in The Century Magazine and in The Independent.[5]

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail while he was consul in Nicaragua. They had met several years earlier in New York when Johnson was working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson became an accomplished artist in pastels and collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.[6]

During his 6-year stay in Hispanic America he completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man which was published anonymously in 1912. It was only during 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship — stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional.

During 1914 Johnson became editor of the editorial page of the New York Age, an influential African American weekly newspaper that had supported Booker T. Washington in his propaganda struggle with fellow African American W.E.B. Du Bois during the early 20th century. Johnson's writing for the Age displayed the political gift that soon made him famous.

Employed from 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, he built and revived local chapters of that organization. Opposing race riots in northern cities and the lynchings that pervaded the South during and immediately after the end of World War I, Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations, such as a silent protest parade of morethan ten thousand African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917. In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that year.[7][8]

In 1920 Johnson was elected to manage the NAACP, the 1st African American to hold this position.[1] While serving the NAACP from 1914 through 1930 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history. In 1920, he was sent by the NAACP to investigate conditions in Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915. Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation, in which he described the American occupation as being brutal and offered suggestions for the economic and social development of Haiti. These articles were reprinted under the title Self-Determining Haiti.[6]

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 of 1921.

In 1922, he editedThe Book of American Negro Poetry, which the Academy of American Poets calls "a major contribution to the history of African-American literature."[5]A work 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.

Other works include The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), Black Manhattan (1930), his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the culture of New York, and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book advocating civil rights for African Americans. Johnson was also an anthologist. His anthologies concerned African-American themes and were part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.[9] He also wrote the melody for the song Dem Bones.[10]

In December 1930, Johnson resigned from the leadership of the NAACP to accept the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, 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 Americans. The position had been especially created for him, largely out of recognition of his achievements as a poet, editor, and critic during the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He held this position until his death.

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" represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had for thirty years."

Johnson died during 1938 while vacationing 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.[11]


  • Springarn Medal from NAACP, 1925 for outstanding achievement by an American Negro.[12]
  • Harmon Gold Award for God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.[12]
  • Julius Rosenwald Fund Grant, 1929.[12]
  • W.E.B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature, 1933, 1st incumbent of Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University.[12]
  • Honorary Master's degree from Atlanta University in 1904.[3]
  • Honorary doctorates from Talladega College and Howard University.[12]
  • On February 2, 1988, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in his honor.[13]
  • In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed James Weldon Johnson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[14]
  • James Weldon Johnson building is named in his honor at Coppin State University.
  • James Weldon Johnson Middle School is named in his honor.


Johnson is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on June 25.


Lift Every Voice and Sing - We Are The Future Big Band (Live at Berklee)

In popular culture[]

In 1919 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dubbed Johnson's song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (composed in 1900) "the black national hymn." In July 2020, following racial unrest in the United States, the National Football League announced that "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" would be performed before the National Anthem at all of its games in Week 1 of the new season.[15]



  • Fifty Years, and other poems. Cornhill, 1917; New York: AMS Press, 1975.
  • God's Trombones: Seven Negro sermons in verse (illustrations by Aaron Douglas). New York: Viking, 1927; Penguin, 1976.
  • Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected poems. New York: Viking, 1935; New York: AMS Press, 1974.



  • Black Manhattan (nonfiction). New York: Knopf, 1930; Arno, 1968.
  • Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Viking, 1933, Da Capo, 1973.
  • Negro Americans, What Now? (nonfiction). New York: Viking, 1934; Da Capo, 1973.
  • The Great Awakening. Revell, 1938.


  • The Creation (illustrated by James Ransome). Holiday House, 1994.
  • Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing (illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist). Scholastic, 1995.

Collected editions[]


  • Fernando Periquet, Goyescas; or, The rival lovers (opera libretto). G. Schirmer, 1915.


  • The Book of American Negro Poetry. Harcourt, 1922;
    • revised edition, 1969.
  • The Book of American Negro Spirituals. New York: Viking, 1925.
  • The Second Book of Negro Spirituals. New York: Viking, 1926.
  • The Books of American Negro Spirituals (contains The Book of American Negro Spirituals and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals). New York: Viking, 1940, 1964.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[16]


"The Creation" A Poem by James Weldon Johnson


The Crucifixion... a poem by James Weldon Johnson


"Go Down, Death" A James Weldon Johnson poem

See also[]


  • Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
  • McWhirter Cameron, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. NY: Henry Holt, 2011.
  • The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004 (Second Edition), p. 791-792.
  • The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford, 1997, p. 404 ff.
  • 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)
  • Hester, Elizabeth J. "James Weldon Johnson: A Bibliography of Dissertations and Theses 1939-2009", ISBN 978-1935779001



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 2004 (Second Edition), p.791-792.
  2. 2.0 2.1 James Weldon Johnson: Harmon Collection
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 James Weldon Johnson, The Literary Encyclopedia
  4. "A Hot Time At Santiago": James Weldon Johnson, Popular Music, and U.S. Expansion
  5. 5.0 5.1 James Weldon Johnson, profile by The Academy of America Poets Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "aap" defined multiple times with different content
  6. 6.0 6.1
  7. Alana J. Erickson, "Red Summer" in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960), 2293-4
  8. George P. Cunningham, "James Weldon Johnson," in Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (NY: Macmillan, 1960), 1459-61
  9. James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938 - Biography
  10. Mary Cappello, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor who Extracted Them (NY: New Press, 2011), 246
  11. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris, New York, Oxford, 1997, p. 404 ff.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4
  13. Scott catalog # 2371.
  14. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  15. Explained: The ‘Black national anthem’ that will be sung at American football games, Indian Express, July 6, 2020. Web, July 13, 2020.
  16. James Weldon Johnson 1871-1938, Poetry Foundation, Web, Oct. 16, 2012.

External links[]

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