Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078
James Weldon Johnson led one of the most diverse lives of any American writer. Given the difficulty of success and accomplishment for African Americans for all of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, Johnson’s busy, successful life was nothing short of remarkable.
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He was born James William Johnson in 1871. He changed his middle name to Weldon in 1913 because, as he wrote to a friend, “Jim Bill Johnson will not do for a man who pretends to write poetry or anything else.” Despite his being born within a decade of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, neither of Johnson’s parents was a slave. His mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was born in Nassau, the Bahamas, in 1842, and his father was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1830. Johnson was the second of three children. His older sister died at the age of two, and after his younger brother, John Rosamond (called Rosamond), came along in 1873, Johnson’s parents adopted a teenage daughter, Agnes Marion Edwards.
Johnson was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, but unlike most African Americans in Jacksonville, he traveled. His family visited his mother’s home in Nassau in 1876, and then in 1884, he spent a summer in Brooklyn, New York. By the time Johnson was sixteen years old, he had met many of the prominent African American leaders of his day, including the legendary Frederick Douglass. He had also mastered Spanish by conversing with his friend Ricardo Rodriguez Ponce, a young man who lived with the Johnson family. By the time Johnson finished his B.A. degree at Atlanta University in 1893, he had met Booker T. Washington, the most renowned African American leader of his day, published numerous poems in Atlanta University’s Bulletin, and become a friend of writer Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Johnson’s professional life was characterized by its breadth. He was a songwriter, lawyer, educator, poet, novelist, journalist, activist, and diplomat. Furthermore, he became one of the very early figures in the great explosion of African American art that took place during the 1920’s, the Harlem Renaissance.
The ten years following his graduation from Atlanta University were a time of amazing productivity for Johnson. At twenty-three, he became principal of Stanton School, the school he had graduated from in Jacksonville, Florida. He served there for eight years, presiding over the expansion of its educational program. During this same time period, he founded and wrote editorials for the Daily American, a daily newspaper for the African American community in Jacksonville. Though the newspaper ceased publication after a year, Johnson continued to expand his horizons. He and his brother Rosamond began collaborating on songs, plays, and operas. In 1898, after studying law at a local white law office, Johnson became the first African American to be admitted to the Florida Bar. That same year, he opened a law office in Jacksonville with Douglass Wetmore.
When Johnson and Rosamond went to New York City in 1899, they began to make contacts within the world of theater and music. They met Oscar Hammerstein as well as other luminaries in the New York art world. These contacts led to a long-standing collaboration with songwriter and performer Bob Cole. The Cole and Johnson Brothers’ songwriting team, with James Weldon Johnson as the primary lyricist, penned songs such as “Under the Bamboo Tree” (which sold 400,000 copies in one year) and “Congo Love Song” as well as a series of songs tracing the evolution of African American music named The Evolution of Ragtime. Nationally known singers and performers such as Marie Cahill performed songs by the team. Their songs appeared in Broadway musicals, such as Sally in Our Alley, and songs from The Evolution of Ragtime were published in Ladies’ Home Journal. The Cole and Johnson Brothers’ group, however, was not responsible for Johnson’s best-known song. Johnson and his brother Rosamond wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in 1900 for a ceremony to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the Stanton School. It eventually became known as “The Negro National Anthem” and continued to be performed into the twenty-first century.
During his years with the Cole and Johnson Brothers’ songwriting team, Johnson had continued to write and publish poetry and essays as well as to travel. Johnson had also studied literature at Columbia University in 1902 with friend and professor Brander Matthews. During 1905, Johnson began work on his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Johnson continued to work on the novel throughout the first decade of the twentieth century as his professional and personal life took yet another turn.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson U.S. consul for Puerto Cabello, the second largest port in Venezuela. By 1908, Johnson had been appointed U.S. consul in Corinto, the chief Pacific port of Nicaragua. He married Grace Nail in New York City on February 10, 1910. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man finally appeared in 1912, published by Sherman, French, and Company in Boston. Johnson chose to publish the novel anonymously because he feared that the novel would fall flat if readers knew that the author was not light-skinned enough to be the model for the main character. However, in 1914, after the novel received little attention and sales lagged, Johnson acknowledged his authorship.
Johnson continued to add new distinctions to his busy, varied life. Commemorating the fifty-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he published the poem “Fifty Years” in The New York Times in 1913. In 1915, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded through the work of W. E. B. Du Bois in 1910. Johnson became a very active member of the NAACP, participating in marches to protest the rising number of lynchings and lobbying the Senate to investigate violence against African Americans in northeastern and midwestern cities. In 1925, the NAACP awarded Johnson the Spingarn Medal.
Johnson also continued to be active in literature during the last two decades of his life, publishing God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) and an autobiography titled Along this Way (1933), and editing the volumes The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926). During the early 1930’s, he held two important teaching posts. He was Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University and later a visiting professor at New York University. He was the first African American to hold such a post at NYU.
Johnson died in an automobile wreck in Maine in 1938. He was sixty-seven.