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James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was the "Renaissance man" of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a novelist, poet, and essayist, but also an active member of the civil rights movement and a leader of the NAACP. He served as a United States consul, he wrote the Black National Anthem, and the list goes on. Keep reading to learn about the fascinating life of James Weldon Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson Biography

James Weldon Johnson Biography Portrat StudySmarterPortrait of James Weldon Johnson, commons.wikimedia.org

James Weldon Johnson Biography: Early Life

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871. His parents were from the North and the family was rather well-off compared to other Black families in the South. His mother was a schoolteacher and she instilled in Johnson an appreciation for the arts at an early age. After finishing middle school at the Stanton School, where his mother taught, he left Florida to attend secondary school and college at Atlanta University.

James Weldon Johnson had to leave for Georgia because Black students were not able to attend high school in Florida.

While at Atlanta University, James Weldon Johnson became acutely aware of the issue of racism in America. On campus, there were debates on the topic, but Johnson also spent two summers teaching Black students in a poor, rural area of Georgia. He saw firsthand the need to improve the lives of Black people in America. When he graduated in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville to make a difference in his community.

James Weldon Johnson went back to the same school he once attended, the Stanton School, to teach. And shortly thereafter, he became principal and worked to extend the curriculum to include high school. Outside of the schoolhouse, he became a vocal advocate for civil rights. In 1895, he founded the Daily American, a newspaper that dealt with racial injustices and the importance of self-betterment as a means to equality. It was the first Black-oriented daily newspaper in the country.

James Weldon Johnson Biography: The Move to New York City

In 1901, James Weldon Johnson moved to New York City with his brother Rosamond. Together, they were a songwriting duo, with James as the writer and Rosamund as the composer. In the five years that they were working together, they produced well over 100 songs for Broadway and other productions.

In 1900, James and Rosamond had collaborated on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known today as the Black National Anthem.

During this period in New York City, James Weldon Johnson also studied creative literature at Columbia University and got involved with the Republican Party. In fact, he wrote two campaign songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s candidacy in 1904. The Roosevelt administration thanked Johnson with a position as the United States consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela.

James Weldon Johnson Biography: Time as a Consul

In 1906, James Weldon Johnson set out for Venezuela where he found he had a lot of free time on his hands. He used the time to work on poetry as well as his first and only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. In 1909, he was promoted to a post in Corinto, Nicaragua where he found a country in political turmoil requires a few more official duties. He stayed in the post until Woodrow Wilson came in with his Democratic administration in 1913.

James Weldon Johnson Biography: Return to New York City

Upon James Weldon Johnson’s return to New York City, he became an editorial writer for the New York Age, a long running, distinguished Black newspaper. In these essays, he displayed a more conservative approach to civil rights with the concept of self-improvement as a means to equality. This aligned well with the position of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who asked him to become their national field secretary in 1916.

James Weldon Johnson Biography Silent Parade StudySmarterPhotograph of the Silent Parade, commons.wikimedia.org

In his role as national field secretary, James Weldon Johnson investigated incidents of racial violence as well as opened up new branches across the nation. During this time, in 1917, he organized the Silent Parade, a silent march through the city to protest lynching. And not to forget his writing career, he published his first poetry collection, Fifty Years and Other Poems, the same year.

Think you that John Brown’s spirit stops?

That Lovejoy was but idly slain?

Or do you think those precious drops

From Lincoln’s heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,

That for which tens of thousands fought,

For which so many freely died,

God cannot let it come to naught."

- James Weldon Johnson, “Fifty Years,” 1917

James Weldon Johnson Biography: The Harlem Renaissance

James Weldon Johnson had been extremely successful in increasing both the visibility and membership of the NAACP, so in 1920, they asked him to be their executive secretary, a position he would hold for ten years. The 1920s also brought the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement based in Harlem that celebrated Black music, literature, art, and culture.

James Weldon Johnson truly embraced the Harlem Renaissance by collecting and publishing the works of Black Americans:

  • The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922)

  • The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925)

  • The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926)

In 1927, he published God’s Trombone, a collection of sermons written in verse that celebrated Southern Black culture. And, in 1930, he finished off the decade with Black Manhattan, a book that highlighted black contributions to New York City culture dating all the way back to the 17th century.

James Weldon Johnson Biography: Later Life

In 1930, James Weldon Johnson resigned from his position in the NAACP and began teaching creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Having more time to devote to writing, he began work on his autobiography, Along This Way, published in 1933. He also remained vocal in the civil rights movement and published a book-length argument in support of racial integration, Negro Americans, What Now? in 1934.

Unfortunately, James Weldon Johnson’s life was cut tragically short by a car accident in 1938. Having made a lasting impact, over a thousand people came to his funeral in Harlem.

James Weldon Johnson's Books and Quotes

As we discussed earlier, James Weldon Johnson was a firm believer that individual improvement, particularly through education and the arts, could help advance the position of Black citizens as a whole. As a result, much of his work was devoted to celebrating and highlighting black culture. However, he did not shy away from showing the darker side of the Black experience in America.

We can glean a lot about Johnson’s position by looking at his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man:

New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments” - James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912

James Weldon Johnson’s protagonist was a biracial man who, despite his pride in Black culture, decides to “pass” as white in order to find success in America:

“It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient.” - James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912

The protagonist does find financial success in the end but feels as though he lost a part of himself to do it. Johnson hoped for a future where “passing” would be unnecessary.

...but if the Negro is so distinctly inferior, it is a strange thing to me that it takes such tremendous effort on the part of the white man to make him realize it, and to keep him in the same place into which inferior men naturally fall.” - James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912

James Weldon Johnson's Accomplishments and Contributions

James Weldon Johnson contributed many works to the Harlem Renaissance and was a key figure in the early years of the NAACP, but he was so much more than a writer or even a civil rights activist. He served as a consul in two countries. He was a bar-certified lawyer. Further, in 1920, he wrote an exposé on the abuse of Black citizens in Haiti during American occupation that prompted a congressional probe and shifted the entire nation in a more isolationist direction. Suffice to say, James Weldon Johnson made his mark.

James Weldon Johnson - Key takeaways

  • James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida to relatively well-off parents who encouraged his interest in the arts.
  • He left Florida to go to Atlanta University for secondary school and college. While there, he became acutely aware of the racial issue in the country.
  • Wanting to make a difference, Johnson returned to Jacksonville and became the principal of the school he once attended. He also founded the Black-oriented newspaper, Daily American.
  • In 1901, he moved to New York City with his brother Rosamond to produce songs for musical productions. While there, James Weldon Johnson also became involved with the Republican Party
  • From 1906 to 1913, he served as a United States consul in Venezuela and then Nicaragua. During this time, he also produced his one novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.
  • Upon his return to New York City, he became involved with the NAACP. He served as their executive secretary throughout the 1920s, helping increase visibility and membership.
  • He was also a key figure in the Harlem renaissance, writing his own works, but also compiling and celebrating the work of other Black Americans. He believed that individual betterment, through education and the arts, could help advance the position of Black people as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions about James Weldon Johnson

James Welson Johnson was a writer, civil rights activist, and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871.

James Weldon Johnson was a writer, a civil rights activist, and a United States consul.

James Weldon Johnson was famous for his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance and his role in the NAACP.

James Weldon Johnson helped build up the membership of the NAACP, collected and celebrated the works of black Americans, and inspired the next generation of writers.

Final James Weldon Johnson Quiz

Question

When was James Weldon Johnson born?

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1901

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What newspaper did James Weldon Johnson found?

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the Daily American

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What did James Weldon Johnson do to support himself when he first moved to New York City?

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wrote songs for musicals

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What political party did James Welson Johnson support?

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the Republican Party

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What role did James Weldon Johnson not have?

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United States consul in Nicaragua

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What is the name of James Weldon Johnson's only novel?

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The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man

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What approach did James Weldon Johnson have to civil rights?

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Answer

conservative

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What protest did James Weldon Johnson organize while working with the NAACP?

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the Silent Parade

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Where did James Weldon Johnson serve as a United States consul?

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Nicaragua

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What is the name of James Weldon Johnson's first poetry collection?

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Answer

Fifty Years and Other Poems

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