James Weldon Johnson



Poet, writer and educator James Weldon Johnson

Born James William Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida, on 17 June 1871 to James Johnson, a headwaiter, and Helen Dillet Johnson, the first female black public school teacher in Florida, both of whom had roots in Nassau, Bahamas. He changed his middle name to Weldon in 1913. The second of three children, Johnson's interests in reading and music were encouraged by his parents. After graduating from the school where his mother taught, Johnson spent time with relatives in Nassau and in New York before continuing with his education.


Johnson's younger brother, John Rosamond, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1897, the two began collaborating on a musical theater. They were unsuccessful in getting their work published, Johnson's experiences there excited his creative energies. He soon began writing lyrics, for which his brother composed music, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing," (printed further down on page) which later became known as the "Negro National Anthem." The Johnson brothers soon teamed up with Bob Cole to write songs. In 1902, Johnson resigned his post as principal in Jacksonville, and the two brothers moved to New York, where their partnership with Cole proved very successful.


In 1910, he married Grace Nail, the daughter of a prosperous real estate developer from New York.



In 1917 he published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, the title poem having received considerable praise when it had first appeared in the New York Times.


Johnson was a Poet, Novelist, Journalist, Song Writer,
Attorney, Educator, Activist and Diplomat.
  • His Education:
    Attended the segregated Stanton School, where his mother taught, until the eighth grade. Since high schools were closed to blacks in Jacksonville, Johnson left home to attend both secondary school and college at Atlanta University, where he took his bachelor's degree in 1894. He also attended Columbia University.
  • Diplomat:
    In 1907 appointment as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, by President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1909 he was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua, Johnson resigned his consulship in 1913.
  • Activist:
    In 1916, held the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Johnson became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920.
  • Novelist-Poet-Song Writer:
    Some of his work includes: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Along This Way (his autobiography), The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926),Godís Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. St. Peter Relates an Incident (1935), a poetic satire on race prejudice.
    He wrote many poems, One of his most well know (from the book God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse ) may be The Creation.
  • Journalist:
    In 1895 he founded a newspaper, the Daily American, designed to educate Jacksonville's adult black community, the first black-oriented daily newspaper in the United States. During its brief life, the newspaper became a voice against racial injustice and encouraged black advancement through individual effort a "self-help" position that echoed the more conservative civil rights leadership of the day. But problems with finances forced it to shut down after several months.
    Around 1913 he become an editorial writer for the New York Age, the city's oldest and most distinguished black newspaper for 10 years.
    Contributed articles and poems to the Chicago Defender, Times-Union, New York Age, New York Times, Pittsburgh Courier, Savannah Tribune, The Century, The Crisis, The Nation, The Independent, Harper's, The Bookman, Forum, and Scholastic.*
  • Educator:
    After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson became the principal of the Jacksonville school where his mother had taught, he improved education there by adding to additional grades,ninth and tenth. Mr. Johnson became professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He was also visiting professor of creative literature at New York University from 1934 until his death.
  • Attorney:
    While still serving as a public school principal, Mr. Johnson studied law and became the first African American to pass the bar exam in Florida in 1898. Johnson practiced law in Jacksonville for several years in partnership with a former Atlanta University classmate.

Johnson won the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro literature
in 1934, the Spingarn Medal, given by the NAACP for outstanding achievement by a black American, twice, and the Harmon Award
for distinguished achievement.

Mr. Johnson died on 26 June 1938 near his summer home
in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car in which he was
driving was struck by a train.

His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.



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Left-Father and Right- Mother
James and Helen Dillet Johnson
Photo courtesy of:Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
The University of South Carolina


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Drawing of James Weldon Johnson
Photo courtesy of:Florida Memory Project : Florida Photographic Collection
Reference collection

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.


Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.


God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.


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[Poet's Corner Index]

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Reference, Research and Source Information

Some information provided byThompson- Gale,
The book, Along This Way by James Weldon Johnson.

Photos of James Weldon Johnson courtesy of:
Florida Memory Project : Florida Photographic Collection
Reference collection.

Photo of Grace Johnson courtesy of:
Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
The University of South Carolina

*Contributed articles and poems list is from:
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 9: Harlem Renaissance - James Weldon Johnson
PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide.


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