James Weldon Johnson Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111202775-Johnson_J.jpg James Weldon Johnson. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In verse and in fiction James Weldon Johnson grappled with the complex issues of race in America. In so doing, he unearthed issues that lingered beneath the surface: the phenomenon of passing, the repressed anger of African Americans, America’s indebtedness to its black citizens, and the power of African American pulpit rhetoric.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

ph_0111202778-Johnson_JW2.jpg James Weldon Johnson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, was graduated from Atlanta University in 1894, and went on to become one of the most versatile artists of his time. In addition to expressing his artistic talents, he led a successful professional life and was an influential civil rights advocate. After his graduation in 1894, Johnson became principal of Stanton School and edited a newspaper, the Daily American. He advocated civil rights in his articles in a time that saw a dramatic rise in the number of lynchings. He thus assumed a public role in the African American community. Encouraged by his brother Rosamond, Johnson and his brother went to New York in 1899 to work on a musical career. Their most lasting achievement of that period is the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the African American national anthem. After having been appointed consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Johnson, after publication of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, decided to attempt to support himself through literary work. He returned to New York to begin writing an influential column for the New York Age, commenting on literary matters and encouraging black literary activity. He published The Book of American Negro Poetry three years before Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro (1925) officially ushered in the Harlem Renaissance.

Beginning in 1916, Johnson was field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organizing new branches and looking into matters of racial injustice nationwide. In 1920, he became the first African American secretary of the NAACP, a post he would hold until 1930. Johnson saw his civil rights work and his artistic activity as complementary, believing that the production of great works of art would improve African Americans’ position in society. Johnson contributed major work to that effort with the publication of God’s Trombones, bringing the language of the African American church into the realm of literature. Weldon also collected two volumes of African American spirituals, which made clear that this expression of African American folk spirit belonged to the world of art. His death in a car accident in 1938 interrupted Johnson in his wide-ranging efforts.