Saturday, March 03, 2007

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

(Part II in a five-part series on the song Lift Every Voice and Sing written by James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson.)

The parents of James and Rosamond Johnson came to Jacksonville Florida from the Bahamas in 1866 after a hurricane destroyed their sponge fishing and dray businesses. James Sr. worked as the headwaiter in one Jacksonville’s fine resort hotels. His wife, Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, taught elementary school. In fact, she was the first female African-American public school teacher in Florida. The importance she placed on achievement and public service undoubtedly came from the example set by her father, who served in the House of Assembly in the Bahamas for 30 years. I relate the Johnson family background to illustrate the values and social climate within their family. The Johnson boys had educated and successful parents. They lived privileged lives for African-Americans of their time.

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871. He attended the Stanton Public School where his mother taught, and upon graduation he went on to study at Atlanta University. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville and to become principal of the Stanton Public School. He must not have found that position entirely satisfying because he was involved in other endeavors during his entire tenure as principal. In 1895, James founded the Daily American, a newspaper devoted to reporting on issues pertinent to the black community. Despite the long hours he devoted to the paper, it was not a financial success and after a year he gave up the effort. However, the Daily American drew the attention of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, who supported James in various ways later in his life. After the demise of the paper, James studied law and became the first African American to be admitted to the Florida bar through open examination. And all of this while holding down a full time job as public school principal!

James and Rosamond started their musical collaboration in 1898 when Rosamond returned to Jacksonville to teach music. Their first work was a comic opera called Toloso that satirized American imperialism after the Spanish-American War. Though Toloso was never produced, its songs were later used in Broadway musicals and it introduced the Johnsons to many influential people in show business, including Oscar Hammerstein and their future partner, Bob Cole, an African-American lyricist, composer and vaudeville performer. During their early collaboration when they were both living and working in Jacksonville, they made periodic trips to New York where their work was well received.

In 1902 the Johnson brothers left Jacksonville to seek their fortune on Broadway. They teamed up with Bob Cole and wrote musical comedies that were produced on Broadway with an all-black cast. They also wrote more than 200 popular songs in which their goal was to “elevate the lyrical sophistication of Negro songs.”

Perhaps writing on a regular basis is what aroused James’s interest in studying English at Columbia University. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 1906. It is remarkable that he was able to pursue a successful Broadway musical career while earning a doctorate. But he did. With one foot in the glitzy world of show business and the the other in the academic scene at Columbia, James met many influential leaders of the day. All were impressed with his high energy, his keen mind, and his many talents.

Through his friendship with Charles Anderson, a black Republican leader and close friend of Booker T. Washington, James became interested in foreign service. After his graduation from Columbia in 1906, he received and accepted an appointment to the United States consulate in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909 he was transferred to Nicaragua, where he met the beautiful Grace Neil, daughter of a wealthy New York real estate broker. They were married in 1910.

His consulate assignments allowed James to devote time to his writing. During his years in the Foreign Service (1906–1913) he wrote much poetry and worked on a novel called The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man which was published in 1912. He returned to New York in 1913 and continued to have an active literary life, publishing editorials, fiction, as well as poetry.

In 1916 he became field secretary of the NAACP, an organization which was then only seven years old. During his four years as field secretary, Johnson increased the organization’s membership from 9,000 to 90,000, a remarkable accomplishment. In 1920 he was appointed executive director and he headed the organization’s fight for racial equality for the next ten years. In 1930 he retired, and spent the next eight years writing and teaching.

Johnson’s creative and influential life came to a sudden end on June 26, 1938 when his car was hit by a train near his summer home in Maine. More than 2000 people attended his funeral, a tribute to his accomplishments and to his wide scope of influence.


1. Modern American Poetry website, owned and maintained by the Department of English at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana: An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to Anthology of Modern American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2000). Edited by Cary Nelson.

2. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections website, owned and maintained by the University of South Carolina.

3. University of Pennsylvania website - Excerpt from the book called Before Harlem, The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I by Marcy S. Sacks

4. National Portrait Gallery website, Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

5. Jazz Roots website by Thomas L. Morgan. This site provides an overview of jazz musicians and other historical information about regarding jazz from 1905 – 1920.

6. Academy of American Poets website.

7. NAACP website.

8. archives.

9. Poet's Corner on the Gale Group Free Resources website.

10. James Weldon Johnson's portrait above is by Laura Wheeler Waring. Oil on canvas, 1943. National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

No comments: