headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home
school open to African Americans in his hometown, Johnson attended the preparatory school
and became principal of Stanton School.
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,"
"The Negro National Anthem."
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was not the only song on which the brothers
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
Owl and de Moon" (1901), "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902), and "Congo
Love Song" (1903).
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.
(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,
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
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
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
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
condemnation from more genteel critics.
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
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
year 1927 also saw the reissuing of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
Americans in New York City.
In 1931 Johnson stepped down as secretary of the NAACP (though he remained on the
writing and classes in American and African-American literature. The rest of the year the
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,
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
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
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
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.