American Literature James Weldon Johnson
Michael Nowlin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0044


James Weldon Johnson (b. 1871–d. 1938) was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. After graduating with a BA from Atlanta University, he became principal of his former grammar school, established the first daily newspaper for Jacksonville’s African American population, and gained admission to the Florida bar. With his brother, the musician J. Rosamond Johnson, he also wrote the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” for a commencement ceremony (in 1900), and it eventually became known as the “Negro National Anthem.” He joined his brother in New York in 1902 to launch a successful songwriting team with Bob Cole. Johnson gave up show business in 1906 to become US Consulate, first in Venezuela, then Nicaragua, where he completed his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which was published anonymously in 1912. In 1914 he moved to Harlem with his wife Grace Nail Johnson (whom he married in 1910). He began writing editorials on a range of subjects for the New York Age, a nationally circulating African American newspaper, and in 1915 he joined the recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He became secretary of the organization in 1920 and remained so until 1930. Fifty Years and Other Poems, his first collection, was published in 1917. In 1922 he edited The Book of American Negro Poetry, the first anthology of its kind, and established himself as a pioneering theorist of African American poetics and a guiding light of the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson modeled his poetic ideas in the 1927 volume God’s Trombones, which appeared in the same year he reissued The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under his name. In 1929, a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship enabled him to devote a year to writing, which resulted in Black Manhattan, a history of African Americans in New York. From 1930 onward, Johnson taught creative writing and African American literature at Fisk University as well as New York University. His 1933 autobiography Along This Way was widely acclaimed, and he collected both new and old poems in the 1935 volume St. Peter Relates an Incident. When he died in a car accident in 1938, Johnson was one of the most honored and respected African Americans in the United States, recognized at once as a man of letters, an advocate of black America’s cultural achievements, and a tireless political opponent of America’s Jim Crow system.

Primary Texts

Most of Johnson’s work is currently in print. The subsections include mainly a list of available collections, as well as a list of all first editions.

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