Johnson, James Weldon, 1871-1938

Alternative names
Birth 1871-06-17
Death 1938-06-26

Biographical notes:

James Weldon Johnson was a publisher, educator, lawyer, composer, artist, diplomat and civil rights leader. Together with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, he wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which came to be known as the "Negro National Anthem" as well as a large number of popular songs for the musical stage of the early twentieth century. Johnson also served as consul of the United States to Venezuela and Nicaragua. His literary contributions include several books and his position as editor of "New York Age." From 1920-1931 Johnson was field secretary, then secretary, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1930 he became chair of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University.

From the description of James Weldon Johnson collection, 1930-1998. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 86164211

From the guide to the James Weldon Johnson collection, 1930-1998, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

James Weldon Johnson was an African-American educator, civil rights leader, and lecturer as well as author of prose, poetry, and songs.

From the description of James Weldon Johnson pamphlets, 1919-1974. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 49016460

From the description of James Weldon Johnson pamphlets, 1919 and 1950. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 82558546

African-American writer and a founder of the NAACP.

From the description of Photograph of James Weldon Johnson [manuscript], 1920. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647833778

James Weldon Johnson, (1871-1938), African-American educator, journalist, diplomat, lyricist, poet, and human rights activist.

From the description of James Weldon Johnson collection, 1886-1980 (bulk 1916-1930). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 173863347


From the description of Autograph letter signed : [n.p.], to Herbert J. Seligmann, [ca. 1930]. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270871156

Lawyer, field secretary for the NAACP, U.S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

From the description of James Weldon Johnson papers, 1899-1952. (Fisk University). WorldCat record id: 70972581

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), writer, educator, diplomat, and civil rights activist.

Grace Nail Johnson (1885-1976), wife of James Weldon Johnson, prominent hostess and donor to the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Beinecke Library.

From the description of James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson papers, circa 1850-2005 (bulk 1900-1976). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702135954

James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. Both of his parents were freeborn, and his family was relatively well-to-do. Johnson's father, James Johnson, was the head waiter in local resort hotel and the minister of a small church. His mother, Helen Louise Johnson, was the daughter of a prominent black civil servant in Nassau. She was well educated and taught in the local black school. Johnson had one brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and an adopted sister, Agnes M. Edwards.

Johnson attended Stanton School, in Jacksonville, where his mother and eventually his sister taught. The school provided only an elementary education, but Johnson was an apt student and received encouragement at home. At this time he became fluent in Spanish through association with a young Cuban who was his family's ward. In 1887 Johnson entered the junior preparatory department of Atlanta University. Despite a year's absence he advanced rapidly to the college department and was graduated in 1894. During his year's absence he continued his studies in Greek and Latin under a private tutor, and he also had access to the library of a local white physician. It was during his school years that Johnson began to write poetry and songs, and he also at that time set out to develop himself as a public speaker. Johnson's associations with Atlanta University continued to be productive throughout his life. Among the alumni of the school were a substantial number of college teachers, college administrators, and businessmen, with whom Johnson became acquainted later in his life. From 1924 until his death he was an active member of the school's Board of Trustees.

After graduating from Atlanta, Johnson returned to Jacksonville to take over the principalship of Stanton School. Each year he added a grade to the school until he developed Stanton into a high school. Becoming recognized as a leader in black education, Johnson was elected president of the Negro State Teacher's Association. He retained the principalship of Stanton School until 1902, but did not limit his interests to his duties there. With a group of friends he founded The Daily American, the first daily black newspaper in the country. Though the paper met with initial success the backers were forced to suspend publication after eight months. Johnson then turned his attention to reading for the law. In 1897 he passed the entrance examination for the Florida State Bar, becoming the first black man licensed in that state by an open examination. He found, however, that there was little chance of a black man making a living from the practice of law.

Johnson's most important activity outside of Stanton School was lyric writing. His brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in partnership with Bob Cole, was beginning to be successful in musical comedy. Rosamond persuaded his brother to add words to some tunes he had written, and between 1899 and 1902 Johnson spent his winters at Stanton and his summers in New York writing lyrics. The song writing team of Cole and Johnson brothers became relatively successful, and Johnson helped in writing many songs that were popular successes. The most enduring piece written by the Johnson brothers was "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (1900), which became the official song of the N.A.A.C.P. and is known as the "Negro National Anthem."

Johnson's success as a lyricist induced him to leave Jacksonville and move to New York permanently in 1902. He continued to write lyrics but again started a new group of activities. Between 1902 and 1906 he attended Columbia University, taking courses in literature from Brander Matthews. Johnson was also active in New York politics, helping to found the Colored Republican Club of New York, and serving as its president.

Johnson entered the United States Consular Service in 1906. This came about largely as a result of his activities on behalf of the Republican Party and the efforts of Booker T. Washington and Charles W. Anderson, an influential black New York politician. He was assured of a good career in the service as long as the Republicans were in power, and served as a consul for six years. From 1906 to 1909 he was posted in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. This post was considered a sinecure even though Johnson performed the consular duties there for Cuba, Panama, and France as well as for the United States. In 1909 he was promoted and transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua, where Johnson's duties were more demanding than they had been at Puerto Cabello. During his stay in Corinto that city for several days was the scene of gunfire resulting from an attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Johnson negotiated with both sides and coordinated his actions with the United States Navy.

While Johnson was in the consular service he continued to write poetry and managed to have some of his pieces published. In 1910, he married Grace Nail, a member of a wealthy and distinguished black New York family. He also found time to write a novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (1912). Johnson made a good record in the consular service but as consular posts were at that time used for political patronage, opportunities for advancement would disappear with the advent of a Democratic administration in 1913. Rather than face a long period of service in Corinto, Johnson resigned from the service in 1913 and returned to Jacksonville to put his father's estate in order. After remaining there for a year he began to divide his time between Jacksonville and New York, in order to reestablish himself as a lyricist. He collaborated with Will Marion Cook, Harry T. Burleigh, and James Reese Europe, the top talents of the period. Musical taste, however, had changed greatly in the preceding ten years, and Johnson had little success. He did translate the libretto of Fernando Periquet's Goyescas, which was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Johnson met with more success outside the field of music. In 1914 he became a contributing editor to the New York Age, and in 1917 his first volume of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, was published. The New York Age under the editorship of Fred Moore was an influential black paper with strong ties to Booker T. Washington. Johnson wrote a weekly column called "Views and Reviews" and contributed unsigned editorials. Through his association with the New York Age he was invited to the Amenia Conference of 1916. There he met and impressed Joel E. Spingarn. Despite Johnson's position on an anti-N.A.A.C.P. paper, Spingarn offered him the job of Field Secretary for the Association, which he accepted.

Johnson's association with the N.A.A.C.P. continued from 1916 until his death. As Field Secretary he helped establish a strong network of local branches. He expanded the organization in the South, a section that had not received emphasis in the National Office. In 1920 Johnson became the Executive Secretary of the Association, and in that year he investigated for the Association the nature of the United States occupation of Haiti. As a result of this investigation he wrote a series of articles called "Self Determining Haiti". Johnson's tenure in the secretaryship marked the strengthening of the National Office, reflecting the growing influence of the organization. He was particularly active in lobbying for an anti-lynching bill. In 1931 Johnson resigned the secretaryship, was elected to the Board of Directors, and became one of the vice-presidents of the organization in which he remained active for the rest of his life. After his resignation from the National Office of the N.A.A.C.P., Johnson was appointed to the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University.

During the years he was Executive Secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., Johnson continued his interest in black music and poetry. As Secretary he had contact and close friendships with New York's leading liberals and publishers and used his influence to promote his own work and that of the young black writers of the Harlem Renaissance period. Johnson's second book of poetry, God's Trombones, was published in 1927. He also prepared three anthologies of black poetry and music: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922, revised 1931); The Book of American Negro Spirituals, (1925); and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals, (1926). In 1930 Johnson received a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write a cultural history of blacks in New York, Black Manhattan (1930).

Johnson's move to Fisk began the last phase of his life. Most of his time was devoted to teaching at Fisk and at New York University. He continued his interest in young black writers as well as in his own writing. Johnson published three more books in this last phase of his life: Negro Americans, What Now? (1934); Along This Way, The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, (1934); and a volume of poetry, Saint Peter Relates An Incident, (1936). Johnson also undertook several lecture tours each year, speaking most frequently on some aspect of the race situation, or the "Negro's Contribution to American Culture." In addition to being on the Board of Directors of the N A.A.C.P. and the Board of Trustees of Atlanta University, he was a member of the Board of Trustees of Palmer Memorial Institute, and he lent his name and support to many other organizations, including the American Fund for Public Service, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Delta Phi Delta journalistic society.

James Weldon Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 67, when his car was struck by a train at a railway crossing in Maine.

Grace Nail Johnson was born on February 27th in New London, Connecticut to John Bennett Nail (1853-1942) and Mary Frances Robinson Nail (1858-1923) the second of the couple’s two surviving children, the other being John Edward Nail (1884-1947). Grace Nail met James Weldon Johnson in 1904 while attending the theatre. The couple became engaged in 1909 and married on February 3, 1910 in New York City.

The Nail family was an important member of New York City’s African-American social and business circles largely due to John B. Nail’s role as a prominent businessman and political leader. John Nail and his brother, Edward, established a popular hotel and café, “Nail Brothers,” in the neighbourhood that would become Greenwich Village, as well as the Shakespeare Hotel in Washington, D.C. John Nail also owned extensive real estate in Harlem, and, through the real estate work of his son, John Edward, the Nails were instrumental in opening up Harlem to African-Americans during the early and mid-twentieth century. The Nails actively encouraged aspiring musicians and actors and were engaged in various artistic and intellectual circles, which included, for example, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.

Grace Nail Johnson shared with her husband an interest in arts and culture as well as social welfare. Grace Nail provided support for Johnson throughout his career. She studied French and Spanish in preparation for diplomatic life and visited publishers in New York on Johnson’s behalf while he remained in Nicaragua in 1912. Among the various organizations Grace Nail volunteered for were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Anti-Lynching Crusaders, and the Circle for Negro Relief. She was also recognized as an influential hostess who mentored a number of young authors during various periods of the couple’s life ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to Johnson’s professorships at Fisk University and New York University.

Grace Nail Johnson played an important role in ensuring Johnson’s legacy following his death in 1938. For example, she worked with publishers and researchers in order to encourage Johnson scholarship and collaborated with Carl Van Vechten to establish in 1941 the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In addition to donating Johnson’s and her own papers to the Library, Grace Nail Johnson also convinced other authors and leading African-American figures to donate their archives to the collection.

Grace Nail Johnson died at the age of 91 on November 1, 1976 at her home in Harlem, New York. Her ashes were interred, with Johnson’s, in the Nail plot at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

The following family trees outline Grace Nail Johnson's paternal (Nail) and maternal (Robinson) families. These individuals are represented in both Family Correspondence and Photographs.

Nail Family

-Edward Nail

-John Bennett Nail (1853-1942) m. Mary Frances Robinson (1858-1923)

--John Edward Nail (1883-1947) m. Grayce Fairfax (1884-1960s)

--Grace Nail (1885-1976) m. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

--Frank Nail (1887-1889)

Robinson Family

James Robinson m. Ellen Robinson

-Josephine Robinson (1857-1948) m. Henry C. Miller (1841-)

--Edna Frances Miller (1880-)

--Helen Gertrude Miller (1882-)

--Ernest H. Miller (1884-)

--Frederick Miller (1891-)

-Lottie L. Robinson m. Henry Griffin

-Cornelia Robinson m. Mr. Jordan

--Gladys Jordan m. Mr. Marshall

---1 daughter and 3 sons

-Mary Frances Robinson (1858-1923)

Ollie Jewel Sims Okala was born in Arkansas on August 14, 1908 to Edward Sims and Elizabeth Marsh Sims (born 1885). Okala was the youngest of three children; the couple’s other children were Eddie Sims (1905-1990) and Kennerbelle Sims (1907-1997). Okala graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Philander Smith College (Little Rock, Arkansas) in 1931 and went on to study nursing at Meharry Medical College, graduating in 1934. Okala continued her studies at Columbia University where she studied Public Health Nursing (M.A., 1937). In 1942 Okala was hired at Roosevelt Hospital where she continued to work until her retirement in 1970. Okala married Julius Byron Etuka Okala (b. 1912) in 1942. Nigerian born, Okala moved to the U.S. in 1939 in order to pursue studies at Lincoln University. He continued his studies at Northwestern University (B.A., Anthropology, 1943) and Columbia University (M.A., Anthropology, 1949; PhD, Education, 1954).

James Weldon Johnson was one of Ollie Jewel Sims Okala’s first patients, and through this chance experience, Okala became a close friend of the Johnsons. When Okala moved to New York City the Johnsons helped her secure a nursing position, and, in turn, Okala provided support for the Johnsons. In later years Okala lived with Grace Nail Johnson. Following Grace Nail Johnson’s death in 1976, Okala continued to reside in the apartment and was designated literary executor of the Johnson estate. Okala died on September 9, 2001 and her ashes were interred in the Nail plot at Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

From the guide to the James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson papers, circa 1850-2005, 1900-1976, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


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  • Tennessee (as recorded)
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