Biography of James Weldon Johnson

Distinguished Writer and Civil Rights Activist

Painting of James Weldon Johnson by Laura Wheeler Waring

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

James Weldon Johnson, an esteemed member of the Harlem Renaissance, was determined to help change lives for African-Americans through his work as a civil rights activist, writer and educator. In the preface of Johnson’s autobiography, Along This Way, literary critic Carl Van Doren describes Johnson as “…an alchemist—he transformed baser metals into gold”(X). Throughout his career as a writer and an activist, Johnson consistently proved his ability to uplift and support African-Americans in their quest for equality.

Family at a Glance

  • Father: James Johnson Sr., - Headwaiter
  • Mother: Helen Louise Dillet - First female African-American teacher in Florida
  • Siblings: One sister and a brother, John Rosamond Johnson – Musician and songwriter
  • Wife: Grace Nail – New Yorker and daughter of wealthy African-American real estate developer

Early Life and Education

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. At an early age, Johnson showed great interest in reading and music. He graduated from the Stanton School at the age of 16.

While attending Atlanta University, Johnson honed his skills as a public speaker, writer and educator. Johnson taught for two summers in a rural area of Georgia while attending college. These summer experiences helped Johnson realize how poverty and racism affected many African-Americans. Graduating in 1894 at the age of 23, Johnson returned to Jacksonville to become principal of the Stanton School.

Early Career: Educator, Publisher, and Lawyer

While working as a principal, Johnson established the Daily American, a newspaper dedicated to informing African-Americans in Jacksonville of various social and political issues of concern. However, the lack of editorial staff, as well as financial troubles, forced Johnson to stop publishing the newspaper.

Johnson continued in his role as principal of the Stanton School and expanded the institution’s academic program to ninth and tenth grades. At the same time, Johnson began studying law. He passed the bar exam in 1897 and became the first African-American to be admitted to the Florida Bar since the Reconstruction.


While spending the summer of 1899 in New York City, Johnson began collaborating with his brother, Rosamond, to write music. The brothers sold their first song, “Louisiana Lize.”

The brothers returned to Jacksonville and wrote their most famous song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in 1900. Originally written in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, various African-American groups throughout the country found inspiration in the song’s words and used it for special events. By 1915, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) proclaimed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was the Negro National Anthem.

The brothers followed their early songwriting successes with “Nobody’s Lookin’ but de Owl and de Moon” in 1901. By 1902, the brothers officially relocated to New York City and worked with fellow musician and songwriter, Bob Cole. The trio wrote songs such as “Under the Bamboo Tree” in 1902 and 1903’s “Congo Love Song.”

Diplomat, Writer and Activist

Johnson served as United States counsel to Venezuela from 1906 to 1912. During this time Johnson published his first novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Johnson published the novel anonymously, but rereleased the novel in 1927 using his name.

Returning to the United States, Johnson became an editorial writer for the African-American newspaper, New York Age. Through his current affairs column, Johnson developed arguments for an end to racism and inequality.

In 1916, Johnson became field secretary for the NAACP, organizing mass demonstrations against Jim Crow Era laws, racism and violence. He also increased the NAACP’s membership rolls in southern states, an action that would set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement decades later. Johnson retired from his daily duties with the NAACP in 1930 but remained an active member of the organization.

Throughout his career as a diplomat, journalist and civil rights activist, Johnson continued to use his creativity to explore various themes in African-American culture. In 1917, for instance, he published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems.

In 1927, he published God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.

Next, Johnson turned to nonfiction in 1930 with the publication of Black Manhattan, a history of African-American life in New York.

Finally, he published his autobiography, Along This Way, in 1933. The autobiography was the first personal narrative written by an African-American to be reviewed in The New York Times.

Harlem Renaissance Supporter and Anthologist

While working for the NAACP, Johnson realized that an artistic movement was blossoming in Harlem. Johnson published the anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, with an Essay on the Negro’s Creative Genius in 1922, featuring work by writers such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay.

To document the importance of African-American music, Johnson worked with his brother to edit anthologies such as The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals in 1926.


Johnson died on June 26, 1938, in Maine, when a train struck his car.

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Your Citation
Lewis, Femi. "Biography of James Weldon Johnson." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, November 24). Biography of James Weldon Johnson. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Biography of James Weldon Johnson." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).