’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper
Herman BeaversJohnson, James Weldon (17 June 1871-26 June 1938), civil-rights leader, poet, and
novelist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of James Johnson, a resort hotel
headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home
in an era, Johnson recalled in Along This Way (1933), when "Jacksonville was
known far and wide as a good town for Negroes" because of the jobs provided by its
winter resorts. After completing the eighth grade at Stanton Grammar School, the only
school open to African Americans in his hometown, Johnson attended the preparatory school
and then the college division of Atlanta University, where he developed skills as a writer
and a public speaker. Following his graduation in 1894 Johnson returned to his hometown
and became principal of Stanton School.
School teaching, however, did not satisfy his ambitions. While continuing as principal
Johnson started a short-lived newspaper and then read law in a local attorney’s office
well enough to pass the exam for admission to the Florida state bar. He also continued to
write poetry, a practice he had started in college. In early 1900 he and his brother
Rosamond, an accomplished musician, collaborated on "Lift Every Voice and Sing,"
an anthem commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. African-American groups around the
country found the song inspirational, and within fifteen years it had acquired a subtitle:
"The Negro National Anthem."
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was not the only song on which the brothers
collaborated. In 1899 the two spent the summer in New York City, where they sold their
first popular song, "Louisiana Lize." In 1902 they left Jacksonville to join Bob
Cole, a young songwriter they had met early on in New York, in the quickly successful
Broadway songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Brothers. Over the next few years Johnson
was largely responsible for the lyrics of such hit songs as "Nobody’s Lookin’ but de
Owl and de Moon" (1901), "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902), and "Congo
Love Song" (1903).
In 1906 Johnson’s life took another turn when, through the influence of Booker T.
Washington, Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In
1909 he moved to a more significant post as consul in Corinto, Nicaragua. A year later he
returned to the United States for a brief stay in New York City, where he married Grace
Nail, a member of a well-established African-American family. They did not have children.
In 1912 revolution broke out in Nicaragua. Johnson’s role in aiding U.S. Marines in
defeating the rebels drew high praise from Washington. He left the Consular Service in
1913; there would be, he felt, little opportunity for an African American in the newly
elected Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson.
Johnson maintained his literary efforts during this period. Several of his poems
(including "Fifty Years," commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation
Proclamation) appeared in nationally circulated publications. In 1912 he published The
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel whose central character, unlike Johnson,
was light enough to "pass" as a white man; the book explores the young man’s
struggles to find his place in American society. Johnson returned to New York City in
1914, and he soon began a weekly column on current affairs for the New York Age, a
widely distributed African-American newspaper.
In 1917 Johnson joined the staff of the interracial National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He worked as field secretary, largely responsible
for establishing local branches throughout the South and for increasing overall membership
from 10,000 to 44,000 by the end of 1918. In 1920 Johnson became the NAACP’s first
African-American secretary (its chief operating officer), a position he held throughout
Johnson was deeply committed to exposing the injustice and brutality imposed on African
Americans throughout the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South. He labored with
considerable success to put the NAACP on secure financial ground. He spent much time in
Washington unsuccessfully lobbying to have Congress pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill,
legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime. Finally, Johnson was a key
figure in making the NAACP a clearinghouse for civil-rights court cases; he collaborated
closely with such noted attorneys as Moorfield Storey, Louis Marshall, and Arthur Garfield
Hayes in a series of cases defending African-American civil rights and attacking the legal
structure of segregation. In all these efforts he worked closely with Walter White, whom
he brought into the NAACP as his assistant and who succeeded him as secretary, and
W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of Crisis, the NAACP monthly journal.
Johnson was probably better known in the 1920s for his literary efforts than for his
leadership of the NAACP. He played an active role, as an author and as a supporter of
young talent, in what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson urged writers
and other artists to draw on everyday life in African-American communities for their
creative inspiration. He played the role of a father figure to a number of young writers,
including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, whose often blunt prose and poetry drew
condemnation from more genteel critics.
His own work during this period included a widely praised anthology, The Book of
American Negro Poetry (1922), a volume that helped to give an identity to the
"New Negro" movement. His continued interest in the African-American musical
tradition found expression in two collections of spirituals that he and Rosamond brought
out: The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of
American Negro Spirituals in 1926. A year later Johnson published his poetic
interpretation of African-American religion in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in
Verse, a theme he first developed in "O Black and Unknown Bards" (1908). The
year 1927 also saw the reissuing of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
Finally, Johnson published Black Manhattan (1930), the first history of African
Americans in New York City.
In 1931 Johnson stepped down as secretary of the NAACP (though he remained on the
association’s board of directors) to become a professor at Fisk University. For the
remainder of his life he spent the winter and spring terms in Nashville teaching creative
writing and classes in American and African-American literature. The rest of the year the
Johnsons largely spent in New York City. He remained active as a writer, publishing Along
This Way, his autobiography, in 1933 and Negro Americans, What Now?, a work of
social criticism, a year later. Johnson’s unexpected death was the result of an automobile
accident near Wiscasset, Maine.
Johnson took deserved pride in his accomplishments across a wide variety of careers:
teacher, Broadway lyricist, poet, diplomat, novelist, and civil-rights leader. Though he
suffered most of the indignities forced on African Americans during the Jim Crow era,
Johnson retained his sense of self-worth; he proclaimed forcefully in Negro Americans,
What Now? that "My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its
integrity against all the powers of hell." The defense of his "inner life"
did not mean withdrawal, but active engagement. Thus Johnson was a key figure, perhaps the
key figure, in making the NAACP a truly national organization capable of mounting the
attack that eventually led to the dismantling of the system of segregation by law.
Maintaining his "inner life" also led Johnson to write both prose and poetry
that has endured over the decades. "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written a
century ago, can still be heard at African-American gatherings, and the title phrase
appears on the U.S. postage stamp issued in 1988 to honor Johnson. The Autobiography of
an Ex-Colored Man has remained in print since its reissue in the 1920s, and it holds a
significant place in the history of African-American fiction. Along This Way, also
still in print after more than sixty years, is acknowledged as a classic American
autobiography. Finally, God’s Trombones, Johnson’s celebration of the creativity
found in African-American religion, has been adapted for the stage several times, most
notably by Vinnette Carroll (as Trumpets of the Lord) in 1963.
The James Weldon Johnson Papers in the Beinecke Library, Yale University is the single
most important primary source for the study of Johnson’s life. Two other important
manuscript collections are the NAACP Collection and the Booker T. Washington Papers, both
in the Library of Congress. The standard biography is Eugene Levy, James Weldon
Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (1973). A briefer biography is Robert E. Fleming, James
Weldon Johnson (1987). Sondra K. Wilson has edited a two-volume collection, The
Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (2 vols., 1995), making available much of
his newspaper and magazine work.
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Wed Mar 21 11:29:47 2001
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University
Press. All rights reserved.