Strangers to Us All Lawyers and Poetry

James Weldon Johnson


Used with permission of the Florida State Archives

James Weldon Johnson was an African-American poet, novelist, public school teacher, principal, diplomat, critic, historian, journalist, and lyricist. He founded the first African-American newspaper, the Daily American and was the first national executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He served as U. S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. Johnson is, in literary circles, associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson was the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar.

Johnson was born June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was a long time school teacher at an all-black school, and his father was headwaiter at the Saint James Hotel. The young Johnson learned to read at an early age, not surprising given his mother's work. Johnson attended the preparatory division of Atlanta University beginning in 1887. (The school was founded in 1869 after the Civil War by the American Missionary Association, a New England organization.) It was during his first year at college that he began writing poetry. In 1888, Johnson was unable to return to Atlanta because while he was visiting his hometown, Jackson, the city was quarantined due to a yellow fever epidemic. Johnson thereupon acquired a tutor with whom he studied Greek and Latin. Johnson returned to Atlanta in 1889 and resumed his education.

During two summers of his college years, Johnson taught in rural Georgia schools. After graduating from the college division of Atlanta University in 1894, Johnson taught for a year at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, his old grammar school, and the school where his mother had taught for many years. Then, at the age of twenty-three, he became its principal.

Before leaving Stanton, Johnson had decided to try his hand as an editor and publisher. With savings and borrowed money he founded the Daily American, a daily newspaper serving the black community in Jacksonville. The paper folded eight months later leaving Johnson in debt.

In 1896, after the demise of the Daily American venture, Johnson took up the study of law with Thomas A. Ledwith, a white Jacksonville attorney. After six months of study Ledwith had Johnson doing much of the office paper work and the next year suggested that he take the bar examination. The only black lawyers in Jacksonville had been admitted to practice in the Federal courts during Reconstruction, and by that route, to practice in Jacksonville. No black lawyer had been admitted directly by examination in Florida. Johnson describes the events as follows:

At the end of eighteen months my friend [Ledwith]—we had become friends—said he thought I ought to try the examination for admission to the bar. I didn't feel so sure about it as he; however, my application was filed and the day for my examination set. The nearer the day approached, the more anxious I grew. I think Mr. Ledwith passed through a similar experience. This was the first time in Duval County and, for all I could learn, in the state of Florida, that a Negro had sought admission to the bar through open examination in a state court. There were two or three Negro lawyers in Jacksonville, but each of these, I believe, had been admitted in the Federal Court during or shortly after the Reconstruction period, and were admitted to practice in the state courts through comity.

The day came. I went over to the courthouse in a state of high tension. I had spent the greater part of the night before in a last effort at preparation. There was one fact that was reassuring to me as I entered the building: I was to be examined before Judge R.M. Call, a very fair man. Negroes in the South have a simple and direct manner of estimating the moral worth of a white man. He is good or bad according to his attitude toward colored people. This test is not only a practical and logical one for Negroes to use, but the absolute truth of its results average pretty high. The results on the positive side are, I think, invariably correct; I myself have yet to know a Southern white man who is liberal in his attitude toward the negro and on the race question and is not a man of moral worth. Judge Call, in the estimation of the colored people of Jacksonville, was a "good man," and he was a good man. My bit of reassurance was quickly lost in the realization that my examination had taken on the aspect of a spectacle. The main courtroom was full. Probably half the lawyers in Jacksonville were present. More people were present than I had many times seen at a murder trial in the same room. I judged that some were there out of curiosity, some out of mind interest, and others to see the fun. I did not look at the crowd. I felt that there was only one face in it that would reflect true sympathy; and my eyes did occasionally seek the face of my friend, Ledwith; there I could read at a glance the barometric rise and fall of my chances. But Ledwith was a highly nervous man and he freely exhibited his deep concern. He constantly fidgeted and ran his fingers through his very red hair. His undisguised anxiety was far from being a source of confidence for me. I determined to let nothing interfere with the working of my mind. I concluded that I would need to know all that I knew, and know it on the instant. So I kept my attention focused as steadily as I could on my examining committee, before whom I was seated six or eight feet away.

The judge had appointed a committee of three. One was E.J. L'Engle, as one of one of Florida's ruling families, who had been admitted to the bar several months before. Another member was Major W.B. Young. I do not know whether his military rank was derived from membership in the militia or whether he had been a very young major in the Civil War or had merely been breveted because of the legal battles he had fought. He was a medium-sized, bantam-like man; a man who, in the Negro idiom, "strutted his stuff." He had reddish hair, fierce gray eyes, a beak of a nose, and wore a mustache and imperial after the pictured tradition of the Southern aristocrat. His presence on the committee disturbed me, because by the "Negro test" and in the general estimation of the colored people of Jacksonville he was a "bad" white man. The third member was Duncan U. Fletcher, one of the outstanding members of the Jacksonville bar. In my mind, his presence on the committee balanced that of Major Young; for I knew of his reputation as a fair and just man. Mr. Fletcher is now the senior United States Senator from Florida.

The examination started. The questions were fired at me rapidly; little time being allowed for consideration. Sometimes the same question would be camouflaged and fired a second time. As the examination proceeded I gained confidence. Before it was over Major Young took up a copy of The Statutes of Florida and began examining me therefrom. It was my impression that the unfairness of this unprecedented procedure was regarded with disapproval by the other members of the committee and by Judge Call. After two hours there was a lull in the questioning. A lawyer named W. T. Walker, sitting near the committee, leaned over and said, "Well, what are you going to do about it." Mr. Fletcher answered, "He's passed a good examination; we're got to admit him." Major Young commented—I quote him precisely; for his words blurted out in my face, made their sizzling imprint on my brain: "Well, I can't forget he's a nigger; and I'll be damned if I'll stay here to see him admitted." With that he stalked from the courtroom. Mr. Fletcher conferred for a moment with Judge Call. The judge then asked me a few questions in equity and international law. Mr. Fletcher conferred with him a moment more, then stood before the bench and made the motion for my admission. Judge Call bade me rise and swore me in as a counselor, attorney-at-law, and solicitor in the courts of the State of Florida. Mr. Fletcher and Mr. L'Engle both congratulated me. Two or three other lawyers offered me a good word. My friend, Ledwith, was nowhere in sight, he explained to me later that when the committee began to confer he could stand the strain no longer. I found him in the office. He had already heard the news, and was beaming with satisfaction. But his first words of congratulation were: "That was the damnedest examination I ever heard or heard of."

[James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson 141-144 (New York: Viking Press, 1933)]

In the late 1890s, Johnson began writing songs with his brother John Rosamond Johnson who had studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. The music work took the brothers to New York, where they spent much of their time in the following years as their musical work became successful. In the early part of 1900, Johnson and his brother Rosamond, collaborated on an anthem titled "Lift Every Voice and Sing," commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday. As African-American groups around the country begin to adopt the song became know as "The Negro National Anthem."

In 1901, the Stanton School burned down in a fire that swept Jacksonville, and Johnson used the occasion to resign his position at the school and move to New York City to pursue his work with his brother. Johnson's song writing and his brother's musical performances of their Tin Pan Alley music produced some of the most popular songs of the time. Rosamond and a partner performed the music all over the United States and with Johnson, they toured Paris and London.

Johnson, still restless and unsatisfied by his success as a song lyricist, became a student at Columbia University, where he studied English literature from 1901 to 1904. Johnson became involved in the 1904 Presidential campaign and through contacts he made in that work ended up with an appointment as US Consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela which he undertook in 1907. It was not a difficult position, and it allowed Johnson to spend much of his two years in Venezuela writing. In 1909, having failed to secure a more prominent posting, he became consul in Corinton, Nicaragua, a post he held for three and a half years. In 1913, with the election of President Woodrow Wilson, Johnson was unable to secure re-assignment to a new post and resigned from diplomatic service.

In 1912, Johnson published, anonymously, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel which grew out of his English studies at Columbia. Titled an "autobiography" it was actually a novel, although it drew heavily from his own experiences, and still more directly on those of a close friend. The novel was not issued under Johnson's own name until 1927, when it was finally given recognition.

Johnson had, even as a young man, had in mind being a journalist and he took up that career again in 1914 as contributing editor with a weekly column for the New York Age, an African-American weekly.

In 1916 Johnson became field secretary of the NAACP, which was founded in New York City in 1909. He was appointed Secretary of the NAACP in 1920 and spent the next several years lobbying NAACP issues on Capitol Hill, including a Federal anti-lynching law. Johnson, while at the NAACP, played a significant role in making the NAACP a clearinghouse for civil-rights cases.

The 1920s in New York City saw the emergence of what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance, and as poet, lyricist, and seasoned statesman, Johnson was a primary figure in the movement.

In 1931, Johnson was named Professor of Creative Literature at Fisk University and continued in that position until his death. James Weldon Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in 1938. While at Fisk, Johnson completed and published his autobiography, Along this Way, which was published in 1933.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson
National Portrait Gallery

James Weldon Johnson
Department of Rare Books & Special Collections
Thomas Cooper Library
University of South Carolina

James Weldon Johnson
Academy of American Poets

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Perspectives in American Literature

James Weldon Johnson: A Brief History
Teacher's Guide

African-American Poets Past and Present: A Historical View
Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute

Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson


[Lift Every Voice and Sing] [O Black and Unknown Bard] [The Creation]

Drawing of James Weldon Johnson
Used with permission of the Florida State Archives


James Weldon Johnson, Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston: The Cornhill Pub. Co., 1917)(New York: AMS Press, 1975) [online text] [online text]

__________________, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking Press, 1927)(Viking Press, 1932)(Viking Press, 1956)(Viking Press, 1971)(New York: Penguin Books, 1976)

__________________, Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems by James Weldon Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1935)

__________________, Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day (New York: Viking Press, 1930)(New York: AMS Press, 1974)(New York: Penguin Books, 1993)


James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1933)(New York: Penguin, 1941)(New York: Da Capo Press, 1973)


The Making of Harlem

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, James Weldon Johnson (1912)(New York: Hill and Wang, 1960) [online text]

__________________, Self-Determining Haiti (New York: The Nation, 1920) [online text]

__________________ (ed.), The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922)(1931) [online text] [online text]

__________________ (ed.), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (New York: Viking Press, 1925)(musical arrangements by J. Rosamond Johnson)

__________________, The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (New York: Viking Press, 1926)

__________________, Native African Races and Culture (Charlottesville, Virginia, 1927)(26 pgs.)

__________________, Black Manhattan (New York, A.A. Knopf, 1930)(New York: Atheneum, 1968)(New York: Arno Press, 1968)

__________________, Negro Americans, What Now? (New York: Viking Press, 1934)(Viking Press, 1938)(New York: Da Capo Press, 1973)

James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American Negro Spirituals, including The Book of American Negro Spirituals and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (New York: Viking Press, 1940)

Sondra Kathryn Wilson (ed.), The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)


Harold W. Felton, James Weldon Johnson (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1971)

Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987)

Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide (Boston: B.K. Hall & Co., 1978)

Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973)

Lawrence J. Oliver & Kenneth M. Price (ed.), Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1997)

Bibliography: Essays, Articles, & Bibliographies

James Weldon Johnson: Selected Articles Indexed
in the MLA International Bibliography Database

Lynn Adelman, A Study of James Weldon Johnson, 52 (2) Journal of Negro History 128-145 (1967)

Herbert Aptheker (ed.), Du Bois on James Weldon Johnson, 52 (3) Journal of Negro History 224-227 (1967)

"James Weldon Johnson," in Stephen H. Bronz, Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness—The 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors 18-65 (New York: Libra Publishers, 1964)

Anne Carroll, Art, Literature, and the Harlem Renaissance: The messages of God's Trombones, 29 (3) College Literature 57-80 (2002).

George E. Copeland, James Weldon Johnson—A Bibliography (Master's thesis, School of Library Science at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, May 1951)

Thadious Davis, "Southern Standard-Bearers in the New Negro Renaissance," in 2 The History of Southern Literature 291-313 (1985)

Howard Faulkner, James Weldon Johnson's Portrait of the Artist as Invisible Man, 19 (4) Black American Literature Forum 147-151 (1985)

Robert E. Fleming, The Composition of James Weldon Johnson's "Fifty Years," 4 (2) American Poetry 51-56 (1987)

______________, Contemporary Themes in Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man, 4 Negro American Literature Forum 120- 124 (1970)

William E. Gibbs, James Weldon Johnson: A Black Perspective on "Big Stick" Diplomacy, 8 (4) Diplomatic History 329-347 (1984)

Donald C. Goellnicht, Passing as Autobiography: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 30 (1) African American Review 17-33 (1996)

Martin Japtok, Between "Race" as Construct and "Race" as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 28 (2) Southern Literary J. 32 (1996)

Kenneth Kinnamon, "James Weldon Johnson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography 168-181 (Vol. 51)

Richard Kostelanetz, The Politics of Passing: The Fiction of James Weldon Johnson, 3 (1) Negro American Literature Forum 22-24, 29 (1969)

Julian Mason, "James Weldon Johnson," in Joseph M. Flora & Robert Bain (eds.), Fifty Southern Writers After 1900 280-289 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987)

Arthenia Bates Millican, James Weldon Johnson: In Quest of An Afrocentric Tradition for Black American Literature (Doctoral dissertation, LSU, 1972)

Lawrence J. Oliver, Writing from the Right during the "Red Decade": Thomas Dixon's Attack on W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson in The Flaming Sword, 70 (1) American Literature 131-152 (1998)

Saunders Redding, "James Weldon Johnson," in Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (ed.), A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Literature 228-229 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1969)

Cristina L. Ruotolo, James Weldon Johnson and the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Musician, 72 (2) American Literature 249-274 (2000)

Charles Scruggs, "H. L. Mencken and James Weldon Johnson: Two Men Who Helped Shape a Renaissance," in Douglas C. Stenerson (ed.), Critical Essays on H. L. Mencken (Boston: Hall, 1987)

Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., Irony and Symbolic Action in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 32 (5) American Quarterly 540-558 (1980)

Thelma B. Thompson, Autobiography as Self-Discovery and Affirmation in James Weldon Johnson's Journey, Along This Way, 21 (1) Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 47-58 (1997)

Research Resources

James Weldon Johnson Papers
James Weldon Johnson Collection
Beinecke Library, Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

J. Rosamond Johnson

Web Resources: Harlem Renaissance

Poets of the Harlem Renaissance and After

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance: Black American Traditions

Harlem Renaissance
PBS Online Newshour

Harlem Renaissance Authors

The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity

Cultural Contexts of the Harlem Renaissance

Alabama Voices from the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance
American Library of Montpellier

The Harlem Renaissance

Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance and Leftism: African American Publication in the 1920s and 1930s

Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro-1925.

Harlem Renaissance Bibliography

Harlem Renaissance: Selected Bibliography

Harlem 1900-1940: An African-American Community
Schumberg Center for Research in Black Culture
New York Public Library