James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His father was the headwaiter at one of the town’s resort hotels, while his mother taught at Stanton School, the town’s largest and best black grammar school. Johnson and his brother enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood; they were well fed and well clothed, and they lived in a nice house with intelligent parents who surrounded their children with books and good music. Johnson received his education at Stanton School and at Atlanta University’s preparatory school and college.
When he graduated in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville and assumed the prestigious position of principal of Stanton School. Johnson was not satisfied, however. While fulfilling his duties as principal, he attempted to publish a newspaper, and when this project failed he began to study law in the offices of Thomas Ledwith, a prominent white attorney. In 1898 he became the first black to be admitted to the bar in Duval County, Florida (Levy 151 – 59) Johnson began his literary career relatively late in life and with the caution and conservatism that characterized most of his endeavors.
By 1897 Johnson had established himself securely in his hometown as a lawyer and an educator. That spring his brother, Rosamond, set to music several of the poems that Johnson had written in his spare time, and the two quickly achieved local success as songwriters. In the summer of 1899 they went to New York, hoping to further their musical careers. For the next three years Johnson spent his summers in New York collaborating with his brother and Bob Cole in writing songs for Broadway musicals, returning to Jacksonville every fall in time for the school term.
During this period Johnson wrote the lyrics to a number of popular songs, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became the unofficial black national anthem. Finally, after much hesitation and with many reservations, Johnson quit his teaching job and committed himself to a fulltime career as a songwriter (Levy 308) During the first decade of the twentieth century the area around 53rd Street became a center for black actors, prizefighters, and show people in New York. For the first time black performers and acting companies were being booked in first-class New York theaters.
Most of this was in vaudeville, where black casts replaced black-faced ones and performed the minstrel show songs and dances to delighted white audiences. It was this scene that James Weldon Johnson, his brother Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole broke into as successful songwriters and vaudeville performers, following in the footsteps of other black writing teams such as Dunbar and Cook. Even though his career gamble paid off economically, Johnson soon became discontented with this work for several reasons.
First, although he collaborated with his partners in writing songs and skits, Cole and Rosemond were the performers, and James did not enjoy following them around the country as the business manager for their act. More important, Johnson quickly became disenchanted with writing strictly for Broadway. While in New York, he began graduate studies in English and drama at Columbia University and became interested in producing literary works more serious than songs or musicals. While at Columbia, he began work on his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Johnson).
During this period Johnson also began to dabble in politics, a decision that would have a significant impact on his career. As the result of his political interests, Johnson formed a friendship with Charles W. Anderson, a prominent associate of Booker T. Washington, who was New York City’s most influential black politician and whom Theodore Roosevelt had named Collector of Internal Revenue for the city’s financial district. By 1904 Johnson had become an officer in Anderson’s Colored Republican Club, and through Anderson he had met Booker T. Washington.
Washington was attracted to Johnson both because of his success as a songwriter and because of his political association with Anderson. In 1904 he invited Johnson, as a financially successful musician, to participate in the National Negro Business League. Johnson’s association with the Tuskegeean came at a crucial time, when the black community was becoming politically divided and many young blacks were moving toward the more militant political philosophy of W. E. B. Du Bois. For Johnson, though, in 1904 Washington, not Du Bois, was the best model for the successful black.
In 1907 Washington and Anderson used their patronage to reward this loyalty and persuaded Roosevelt to offer their protege a position with the consular service. Again, with much hesitation and trepidation, Johnson made a career change. He dissolved the musical partnership and accepted a position in the Foreign Service as United States Consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela (Toll 212-217). During his seven years with the State Department, first in Venezuela and then in Nicaragua, Johnson began his serious writing. Like Dunbar and Chesnutt, Johnson’s literary contacts were white editors and white magazines.
While he was still at Columbia his friend and professor, Brander Mathews, introduced him to Harry Thurston Peck, who was the editor of Bookman and who accepted several of Johnson’s poems for publication; and, before he left New York, Johnson established contact with the editors of Century magazine and the Independent. Johnson then used his spare time, which was plentiful in his consular position, to write, and his poems began appearing regularly in these magazines. His most important accomplishment during this period was the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which Johnson published in 1912 (Johnson 9).