James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. Johnson was the eldest son of James Johnson, Sr., a head waiter at a hotel, and Helen Louise (née Dillet), a schoolteacher at the Stanton Preparatory School in Jacksonville, where Johnson would later become a principal at age twenty-three. His parents were immigrants from the Bahamas. Johnson attended Stanton, where his mother, who was one of his instructors, encouraged him to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He attended Atlanta University (now, Clark Atlanta University) and graduated with a BA, with honors, in 1894. Johnson took graduate courses at Columbia University sometime in the 1900s, but graduated with an MA from Atlanta University in 1904.
Johnson wrote and edited numerous historically significant books of poetry, particularly The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), a major contribution to the history of African American literature; The Book of American Negro Spirituals (Viking Press, 1925), followed a year later by The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (Viking Press, 1926); and God’s Trombones (Viking Press, 1927), winner of the William E. Harmon Foundation Award. The latter was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip that he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this trip that ignited his interest in the African American folk tradition. In 1900, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song was immensely popular in the Black community and became known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to work with his brother John Rosamond Johnson, a composer, and the Black vaudevillian and composer Bob Cole to compose songs for musicals. Johnson and his brother wrote around two hundred songs for Broadway. Johnson also composed two songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign. In 1912, Johnson anonymously published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Sherman, French & Company), the story of a musician who rejects his Black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The book explores the issues of racial identity and “passing” in the twentieth century, a common theme for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1933, he published his autobiography Along This Way (Viking Press).
In 1925, Johnson received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal. He was also the recipient of a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and used the funding to write Black Manhattan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), a historical account of African Americans in New York from the pre-Revolutionary period to the 1920s. Johnson also received honorary degrees from Talladega College in Alabama and Howard University.
Before becoming a poet, composer, and anthologist, Johnson embarked on careers in education, journalism, and law. In 1891, he began to teach school in Georgia. In 1895, he founded the Daily American, an African American newspaper, which folded after a year due to bankruptcy. The following year, Johnson helped to expand his alma mater, Stanton, into the first public school for African Americans in Florida. In 1897, Johnson became one of the first African Americans to be admitted to the Florida Bar Association. He then started a law practice in Jacksonville. In 1901, he was elected president of the Florida Teachers Association. In 1906, Johnson served as U.S. consul to both Venezuela and Nicaragua during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. While employed by the diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in The Century Magazine and The Independent.
During the First World War, Johnson became a noted activist. In 1917, he organized the Negro Silent Protest Parade during which around ten thousand people marched against lynchings and other forms of terrorist violence that target African Americans. Johnson helped to make the NAACP a national power by fostering an unprecedented increase in membership, particularly in the South. In 1920, he became executive secretary and served in this role for a decade.
In 1934, Johnson became the first visiting professor at New York University. Two years later, he was offered the presidency at his alma mater, Atlanta University, but declined.
James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938 after a train hit his car in Wiscasset, Maine. His funeral was held in Harlem.