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Life Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

Writing life sketches and/or interviews that focus on well-known poets, philosophers, and others remains part of my writing toolkit.

Early Life and Education

On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, to James Johnson, a Virginian, who served as the headwaiter at a resort hotel, and Helen Louise Dillet, a Bahamian, who served as the first black, female educator in the state of Florida. The Weldons raised their son to be a strong and independent. James remained a free-thinking individual as his parents had instilled in him the knowledge that he could achieve any level of success for which he desired to strive.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after completing his bachelor’s degree in 1894, he took the position as principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School, in which his mother had served as a teacher. As principal of Stanton, Johnson made vast improvements in the curriculum, and he also added grades 9 and 10.

As Johnson served the school and community as principal, he founded a newspaper, The Daily American, which remained in circulation for only a year, but which, fortunately for his future in activism, provided a platform for bringing the young activist to the attention of the two prominent individuals of the civil rights movement, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1896, Johnson began a study of the law in Thomas Ledwith’s law office in Jacksonville, Florida. He then passed the bar in 1898, becoming the first black ever admitted to the bar in Florida. He practiced law for only a few years before deciding to pursue other fields of endeavor.

New York City to the Diplomatic Corp

In 1901, James and brother Rosamond relocated to New York City, where they pursued a career in songwriting. They partnered with Bob Cole, winning a publishing contract that paid them a monthly stipend of $1200, a fortune back in the early 20th century. During the next five years, they wrote and produced about 200 song for Broadway and other formats. Their hits included such titles as "Didn’t He Ramble," "Under the Bamboo Tree," and "The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground."

The Johnson brothers along with Bob Cole garnered a stellar reputation as a musical trio, and they were affectionately labeled, "Those Ebony Offenbachs." While eschewing the practice of creating minstrel show stereotypes, the trio did condescend to create simplified creations of black life of rustics for white audiences who demanded such fare. But their more important contribution to music included a suite of six songs titled The Evolution of Ragtime, which has remained an important documentary of the black experience in contributing to music.

Living in New York also afforded Johnson the convenience of attending Columbia University, where he studied literature and creative writing in a formal setting. He also began his activism in Republican Party politics. Serving as the treasurer of New York’s Colored Republican Club, he composed two songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, which Roosevelt won becoming the 26h president of the United States.

After the black national civil rights leadership separated into two factions, one conservative lead by Booker T. Washington and the other radical, headed up by W.E.B. Du Bois, Johnson choose to follow Washington and the conservatives. Washington’s leadership had exerted just the right influence that helped Roosevelt win the presidency. Thus, that influence was exerted again to have Johnson appointed to the US consulate in Venezuela.

Johnson’s stint in that South American country afforded him time to write poetry. He composed his beautiful, nearly perfect sonnet, "Mother Night," during this time. Also during this three year of services as consul, Johnson was able to finish his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. After Johnson’s stint in Venezuela, he was promoted and relocated to Nicaragua, where his more demanding job meant he had little time for his literary efforts.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Back to New York and the Harlem Renaissance

In 1913, with the inauguration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Johnson resigned from foreign service and returned to the USA. In New York, Johnson began serving as a writer for New York’s most prestigious black newspaper, the New York Age, where he composed essays touting the importance of education and hard-work. His conservative stance put him more in line with Booker T. Washington than with radical militant W.E.B. Du Bois. Nevertheless, Johnson managed to remain on good terms with both men, despite the politics that divided them. In 1916, Johnson took on the role as secretary for the NAACP, after Du Bois suggested that position to Johnson. In 1920, Johnson headed the organization as president.

Despite his heavy activist duties with the NAACP, Johnson began writing full time. In 1917, he brought out his first collection of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems, which received critical acclaim and helped establish him as an important member of the Harem Renaissance Movement. He continued his writing and publishing; he also served as the editor for numerous volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

Johnson's second book of poems titled God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927, again receiving much praise from critics. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a best-selling author and an activist for education reform, remarked in a letter about Johnson’s style:

. . . heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed.

Back to Teaching

After retiring from the NAACP, Johnson continued his writing and later served as professor at New York University. Again Johnson's stellar reputation preceded him as he joined the NYU faculty, as Deborah Shapiro has testified:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

Johnson’s Death

In 1938, age 67, sadly, Johnson was killed in an accident in Wiscasset, Maine after a train crashed into the automobile in which the poet was a passenger. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people. Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American literary scene.

Johnson’s life creed offers an uplifting inspiration after which anyone might want to chisel their life:

I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.

Johnson’s physical incasement is interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Unconventionally, he is body is arrayed in his favorite lounging cape, while his hands are clutching a copy of his God’s Trombones.

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

The Lyric: "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing"

James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyric, "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing," for the belovèd educator/reformer, Booker T. Washington, who visited the Stanton school for a birthday celebration on February 12,1900, of President Abraham Lincoln. A chorus of 500 students from the school recited the poem during that celebration.

This inspirational lyric is thematically similar to the "Star Spangled Banner," as both lyrics are celebrating and offering gratitude to the Belovèd Creator God for the gift of freedom:

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

Lift every 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.

Johnson’s brother, Rosamond, wrote the melody for the poem, turning it into a hymn, which in 1919 was designated by the NAACP the "Negro National Hymn (or Anthem)."

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 08, 2021:

Hi, Louise. Nice to hear from you. Thanks for responding.

One of my very favorite American poets, Johnson always offers his best, polished pieces that uplift the heart and mind. His deep insight into human nature and the ability to create entertaining yet spiritual poems render him one of the most important poets of all time. His activism actually offered useful progress in bringing people together.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 08, 2021:

Thank you, OLUSEGUN.

Johnson is a fascinating poet with unique skills and a wholesome, healthy attitude toward life. His affinity for music further enhances his artistic output. HIs works are always inspirational and yes educational.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 08, 2021:

Very interesting Linda. I didn't know about this man. Thankyou. =)

OLUSEGUN from NIGERIA on April 08, 2021:

This is educating.

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