James Weldon Johnson was a writer, diplomat, professor, and editor, who also described himself as a man of letters and a civil rights leader. Even though he is no longer living, James Weldon Johnson has left much about his contributions to African American literature. Johnson was born June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida to James and Helen Louise (Dallied) Johnson. Johnson’s father, James Johnson, was born a freeman and was of mixed ancestry. He was a headwaiter in St. James Hotel. Mr. Johnson taught his son how to speak Spanish as a young boy. Johnson’s mother, Helen Johnson, was born a free woman in the West Indies.
Mrs. Helen was a woman of French and Black ancestry. She was the first black American to teach in the state of Florida. Mrs. Helen also taught her son to play the guitar(Otfinoski 22). Johnson was born the second of three children: John Rosamond, also known as “Rozy,” and a sister who died shortly after birth (Logan and Winston, “ James Weldon Johnson” 353). He was originally named Johnson “James William Johnson,” by his parents, but in 1913, he changed his middle name to Weldon (Kranz, “James Weldon Johnson” 78). Sept 1 Johnson was a well-educated man of his time. During his first few years of school, he attended Stanton, which offered blacks an education up to the eighth grade. Stanton was one of the best black schools in Johnson’s hometown. He graduated from Stanton at the age of 16 and went on to attend a secondary school and college at Atlanta University.
Johnson attended Atlanta University in Georgia because there were no schools beyond grammar school for blacks in Jacksonville, Florida and the university ran a special high school program for blacks (23,28). Johnson furthered his education at the university believing that it would educate him more in his interest of black people (Adams 155). In 1894, Johnson graduated with honors from Atlanta University receiving his bachelor’s degree. He also gave the graduation speech (Kanzs During Johnson’s lifetime he had many careers helping others and writing. Johnson was a poet, songwriter, editor, civil rights leader, lawyer, educator, and diplomat (Metzger et. al. 303).
Russell L. Adams, author of Great Negroes Past and Present, stated, “Johnson had a talent for persuading people of differing ideological agendas to work together for a common goal . Sept 2 Paying his own way through school, Johnson worked in a lathe factory during college and in the summer at a rural school teaching in Georgia, which paid a nickel per student, to help pay his way through college (Otfinoski 23). When Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894, he turned down a medical scholarship at Harvard to accept a job as principal at the- Black Stanton school in Jacksonville, Florida.
While principal at Stanton, Johnson visited local white schools to compare the levels of education being taught because he felt that all black children in his hometown should have the same opportunity of being taught the same levels of education. So, in doing that he started secretly teaching freshman classes without the supervisor’s permission. After Johnson told his supervisor about teaching freshman classes, he was so impressed that he decided to expand Stanton to a four-year By 1901 Johnson was financially and mentally secure enough from his song royalties he decided it was time to resign as principal in Jacksonville and devote all of his time to writing.
So, he moved to New York City with his While in New York City Johnson met a young person by the name of Grace Nail, the daughter of a real estate broker, at a dance (Tolbert- Sept 3 Rouchaleau 55). On February 3, 1910, Grace Nail became the wife of James Also while living in New York, he studied drama and literature at Columbia University and graduated in 1905 (Otfinoski 25). Johnson’s mother’s encouragement in reading, drawing and listening to music really paid off (Metzger et. Al. 304). He started writing in a black dialect, influenced by Paul Dunbar, and standard English on racial issues that he was witnessing around him (Kranz 78).
Johnson had many of his poems published in the Century and the Independent magazines. Johnson’s first poem, Since You Went Away, was published in the Century magazine and set to music by his brother to become a popular song. Johnson and his brother also wrote the song, Lift Every Voice and Sing, to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, in the 1900s. Later, it became the National Anthem of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement In May of 1885, Johnson and his friends published the first African American daily newspaper in the U.S., but with the lack of readers failed the newspaper within eight months.
In 1912, he published his first novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which sold very poorly until Sept 4 In 1927, Johnson had much of his poetry published in one of his finest books, God Trombones. This book contained seven folk sermons in verses as if a black preacher in the south was preaching them. Here is a part of one The Creation
Then God walked around, On all that he had made. And He looked at his moon, And He looked at His little stars;
With all it living things, And God said: “I’m lonely still.” On the side of the hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands, God thought and thought, Till He thought: “I’ll make me a man!” Up from the bed of the river And by the bank of the river And there the great God Almighty, Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the Sept 5 Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hands, Like a mammy bending over her baby, Kneeled down in the dust Toiling over a lump of clay Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew of life, And man became a living soul. Amen.
In 1916, Johnson joined the NAACP as field secretary. In 1920, he became the first African American to be appointed secretary of the NAACP. In 1930, Johnson resigned from to return teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee as a professor of Creative literature. According to my readings, Johnson won many awards in his lifetime doing positive things. Some of his awards including the Springarn Medal from the NAACP, (1925) and W.E.B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature, (1933). He was the first black American to pass the Florida Bar exam after eight months of studying with a white attorney (Otfinoski 22).
Johnson was killed on June 6, 1938 on his way from is home in Great Barrington, Maine by a train in a blinding rainstorm. Johnson died soon after Sept 6 the accident at the age of 67 and his wife, who was driving was injured and remained in the hospital for many weeks (Tolbert-Roychaleau 102). Johnson’s tragic death was followed by the funeral of his dreams: “Over 2000 persons attended Johnson’s funeral on June 30, in Salem Methodist Church with Rev.
Frederick officiating . . . Johnson was buried, at his request, in his lounging robe, and a formal trouser, with a copy of “God Trombones,” in his hands, in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery . . . .” (Logan and Winston 353) To conclude this paper, James Weldon Johnson was an outgoing person, a great writer, teacher, and a public speaker. But one thing I will always remember Johnson for is his writing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is known as the Black National Anthem. Johnson has also accomplished many other things in his lifetime as an African American because he would do anything to get a job done right the first time.
- Adams, Russell L. “James Weldon Johnson.” Great Negroes Past and Present. 16:27:17 (1984) Internet. 12 Feb. 1998
- “ James Weldon Johnson.” Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. 1997 ed. Kranz, Rachel C.
- The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans. 1992 ed.
- Logan, Rayford, and Michael Winston.
- Dictionary of American Negro Biography. 1982 ed. Metzger, Linda, et. Al. Black Writers. Detroit: Gales Research Inc., 1988
- Otfinoski, Steven. Great Black Writers. New York: Facts On File, 1994
- Patterson, Lindsay. International Library of Negro Life: An Introduction To Black Literature In America. New York: Publishers Company, Inc., 1968
- Tolbert- Rouchaleau, Jane. Black Americans of Achievement. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988