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James Johnson

Johnson is remembered best for his leadership within the NAACP, as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems, and collections of folklore. He was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University. Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.
  • Background

    Mother was Helen Louise Dillet (a musician and a public school teacher—the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school). Father was James Johnson. His brother was the composer J. Rosamond Johnson.

    James Weldon Johnson died during 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.
  • Education

    • While attending Atlanta University Johnson became known as an influential campus speaker. He won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory in 1892. The contest topic was "The Best Methods of Removing the Disabilities of Caste from the Negro". In addition, Johnson founded the newspaper the Daily American and in 1895 and became its editor. The newspaper concerned both political and racial topics. It was terminated a year later due to financial difficulty. These early endeavors were the start of what would prove to be a long period of activism.


    • Johnson became further involved with political activism during 1904 when he accepted a position as the treasurer of the Colored Republican Club started by Charles W. Anderson. A year later he became the president of the club. His duties as president included organizing political rallies During 1914 Johnson became editor of the editorial page of the New York Age, an influential African American weekly newspaper that had supported Booker T. Washington in his propaganda struggle with fellow African American W. E. B. Du Bois during the early 20th century. Johnson's writing for the Age displayed the political gift that soon made him famous.

      Employed from 1916 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, he built and revived local chapters of that organization. Opposing race riots in northern cities and the lynchings that pervaded the South during and immediately after the end of World War I, Johnson engaged the NAACP in mass demonstrations, such as a silent protest parade of morethan ten thousand African Americans down New York City's Fifth Avenue on July 28, 1917. In 1919, he coined the term "Red Summer" and organized peaceful protests against the racial violence of that year.

      In 1920 Johnson was elected to manage the NAACP, the first African American to hold this position. While serving the NAACP from 1914 through 1930 Johnson started as an organizer and eventually became the first black male secretary in the organization's history. In 1920, he was sent by the NAACP to investigate conditions in Haiti, which had been occupied by U.S. Marines since 1915. Johnson published a series of articles in The Nation, in which he described the American occupation as being brutal and offered suggestions for the economic and social development of Haiti. These articles were reprinted under the title Self-Determining Haiti. Throughout the 1920s he was one of the major inspirations and promoters of the Harlem Renaissance trying to refute condescending white criticism and helping young black authors to get published. While serving in the NAACP Johnson was involved in sparking the drive behind the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921.

      Shortly before his death, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians. According to musical historian James Nathan Jones, the formation of the "American Negro Orchestra" represented for Johnson "the fulfillment of a dream he had for thirty years."

      During his six-year stay in Hispanic America he completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man which was published anonymously in 1912. It was only during 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship — stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional. Other works include The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), Black Manhattan (1930), his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the culture of New York, and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book advocating civil rights for African Americans. Johnson was also an anthologist. His anthologies concerned African-American themes and were part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. He also wrote the melody for the song Dem Bones.

      In 1922, he edited The Book of American Negro Poetry, which the Academy of American Poets calls "a major contribution to the history of African-American literature." One of the works for which he is best remembered today, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927 and celebrates the tradition of the folk preacher. In 1917, Johnson published 50 Years and Other Poems.


    • Poetry collections

      To a Friend (1892)

      A Brand (1893)

      The Color Sergeant (1898)

      Lift Every Voice and Sing (1899)

      Sense You Went Away (1900)

      The Black Mammy (1900)

      O Black and Unknown Bards (1908)

      Brothers (1916)

      Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)

      My City (1923)

      Go Down, Death (1926)

      God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)

      Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1935)

      The Glory of the Day was in Her Face

      Selected Poems (1936)

      The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912/1927)

      Self-Determining Haiti

      The Book of American Negro Poetry Harcourt, Brace, and Company

      Second Book of Negro Spirituals

      Black Manhattan

      Negro Americans, What Now?

      Along This Way

      The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson


    • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man Autobiography


    • Wife: Grace Nail
    Died June 26, 1938
    (aged 67)
    • 1894
      studied at Atlanta University
    • 1900
      published poet, The Century Magazine and The Independent
    • 1906
      consul, Puerto Cabello


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      • Atlanta University
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    • Career
      • Puerto Cabello
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      • The Century Magazine and The Independent
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    • Works
      • Autobiography: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
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      • Grace Nail
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