Skip to main content

Life Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

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.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

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.

Note on Usage

In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." The terms, "Negro," "colored," and "black" remained widely accepted in American English parlance at the time James Weldon Johnson was writing.

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

Negro National Hymn: "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)."

Sample Poem: "Fifty Years" with Commentary

The following sample poem, "Fifty Years," with commentary offers a glimpse into the style and subject matter choices of the great poet, James Weldon Johnson.

Introduction and Text of "Fifty Years"

James Weldon Johnson begins his commemorative poem, "Fifty Years," with the epigraph, "(1863–1913) On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation."

The speaker is paying homage to the many abolitionists who helped end slavery. And while many citizens still held the view that their black brothers and sisters should remain second class citizens, the speaker offers the rationale for the blessings of equality and respect among all citizens.

This speaker possesses a cosmic view of historical procedure, and he shares his awareness with his compatriots of all shades of skin color that God is always in control, and freedom must ring for those who seek it and work to maintain it—a view that remains as operate today as it did back in the early twentieth century.

Fifty Years

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years—a winter’s day—
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Where once the tangled forest stood,—
Where flourished once rank weed and thorn,—
Behold the path-traced, peaceful wood,
The cotton white, the yellow corn.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

That Banner which is now the type
Of victory on field and flood—
Remember, its first crimson stripe
Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood.

And never yet has come the cry—
When that fair flag has been assailed—
For men to do, for men to die,
That we have faltered or have failed.

We’ve helped to bear it, rent and torn,
Through many a hot-breath’d battle breeze
Held in our hands, it has been borne
And planted far across the seas.

And never yet,—O haughty Land,
Let us, at least, for this be praised—
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice—
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price.

And yet, my brothers, well I know
The tethered feet, the pinioned wings,
The spirit bowed beneath the blow,
The heart grown faint from wounds and stings;

The staggering force of brutish might,
That strikes and leaves us stunned and dazed;
The long, vain waiting through the night
To hear some voice for justice raised.

Full well I know the hour when hope
Sinks dead, and ’round us everywhere
Hangs stifling darkness, and we grope
With hands uplifted in despair.

Courage! Look out, beyond, and see
The far horizon’s beckoning span!
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.

Because the tongues of Garrison
And Phillips now are cold in death,
Think you their work can be undone?
Or quenched the fires lit by their breath?

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.

Reading of "Fifty Years"


This speaker of this poem is offering a tribute to the struggle for civil rights in America that began with President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, as he cites several of the most noted abolitionists.

Stanza 1 - Stanza 3: Celebrating 50 Years Since the Emancipation Proclamation

James Weldon Johnson’s narrator of "Fifty Years" is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, beginning the long process of ending slavery in the United States.

The speaker addresses the sufferers of slavery as well as his own contemporaries, "brothers," many who are the descendants of slaves.

Johnson’s speaker is dramatizing the signing the Emancipation Proclamation, implying that President Lincoln had erased the vicious practice of slavery and raised the status of the slaves to manhood—a status they had been denied.

The speaker looks back in time as he compares those "fifty years" to a "winter’s day." Historically, fifty years is, indeed, short, but this half century has been like a very cold season of winter for this Africans and their descendants.

Johnson then takes the reader/listener even farther back in time with the disconcerting image of the slave standing, "naked, shivering," who were "[s]natched from their haunts across the seas," and who "[s]tood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore."

Stanza 4 - Stanza 6: Proudly Claiming a Heritage

Proudly and rightly, the speaker decrees, "this land is ours by right of birth"; he and his ancestors have developed the fallow earth with their "sweat," which has resulted in "fruitful soil."

Instead of merely,"tangled forest," now, through their labor there are "peaceful wood," cotton, and corn fields yielding valuable products for the American people. The speaker claims that to turn this nature-wild land into a domesticated home, "[o]ur arms have strained, our backs have burned, / Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun."

Stanza 7 - Stanza 9: Dramatizing Patriotism

The speaker dramatizes the patriotism of his fellows who have died fighting for America even before it recognized them as equal patriots and full citizens. His allusion to Crispus Attuck, the first patriot to die in the American Revolutionary War, offers a stark reminder: "Remember, its first crimson stripe / Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood."

The speaker highlights the fact that Attuck died willingly for his country, not forced because he was a slave. He stresses that this race of American patriots has always stepped forward to defend America, even in foreign wars.

Stanza 10 - Stanza 12: They Have Already Secured Their Rights

The speaker is adamant in reporting to a land still roiled in racism (Johnson was writing this 1913) that at no time has "one black, treason-guided hand / Ever against that flag been raised."

Because of the genuine qualities that his African American brothers and sisters have demonstrated since the founding of America, the speaker maintains that they do not deserve to "hang [their] heads in shame" or "speak but servile word," or be timid in claiming their heritage as true, patriotic Americans.

Therefore, the speaker demands that his contemporaries, "stand erect and without fear." They have procured the right to their "sonship here," and they have tendered more than should be required of anyone.

Stanza 13 - Stanza 15: Affirmation Despite Adversity

The speaker never makes light of the black experience in America; he knows very well the physical and mental humiliation that his fellow patriots have suffered—as well as the broken spirit. He is aware of the deep levels of discouragement such treatment causes. He understands that there are always times that all one can rely on is prayer.

However, this speaker also understands that such oppression cannot endure. He, therefore, commands his listeners to become fearless and to look forward to the future and retain "[f]aith in your God-known destiny! / We are a part of some great plan."

The speaker then alludes to William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, two strong abolitionists. He inquires, rhetorically, if his fellows believe that the "fire lit by their breath" could be snuffed out.

He further asks if his brothers can imagine that the spirit of John Brown and Elijah Lovejoy has become lifeless and departed. He wants them to consider the death of Abraham Lincoln—did the great emancipator die "in vain"?

The speaker delivers an affirmation that all of those great abolitionists and the great emancipator did not resist only to die in vain. He insists, "millions have prayed" for and "tens of thousands have fought" for and "many freely died," so that dark-skinned people could know the equality they deserved. And of most importance, he treasures and maintains an abiding faith that, "God cannot let it come to naught."


© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


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. =)