James Weldon Johnson

(1871-1938 / Florida/United States)

Biography of James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson poet

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist. 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.

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet and James Johnson. His brother was the composer John Rosamond Johnson. Johnson was first educated by his mother (a musician and a public school teacher—the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school) and then at Edwin M. Stanton School. His mother imparted to him her considerable love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. At the age of 16 he enrolled at Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there. The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida's first winter havens, gave young James the wherewithal and the self-confidence to pursue a professional career. Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust given him in the expectation that he would dedicate his resources to black people. Johnson was also a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

He served in several public capacities over the next 40 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry, and music. In 1904 Johnson went on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential campaign. Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as US consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906–1908 and then Nicaragua from 1909–1913.

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail while he was a United States Consul in Nicaragua. They had met several years earlier in New York when Johnson was working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson became an accomplished artist in pastels and collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.

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The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely--
I'll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

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