James Weldon Johnson: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

This lesson will examine the life of James Weldon Johnson, and will review his written work, primarily his books and poetry. Read on, and then test yourself with the quiz!


James Weldon Johnson was an author, but he also led a life that was extraordinary enough in itself to fill several books. He was not only a prolific writer of novels and poetry, but a leader of one of the most influential organizations of the 20th century. He was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the consul in Venezuala and Nicaragua for several years, and was also a lawyer and professor.

These facts become more impressive when it is taken into account that Weldon was an African American man who achieved all of this in the early 20th century, a time when civil rights in America was in its infancy. His most notable work was his novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which sheds light on the concept of race relations in America.

James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson portrait


From his childhood, Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, were taught the importance of education by their mother, who instilled in them a great respect for classic literature and music. Johnson went on to attend university in Atlanta, where he excelled in his studies, and took graduate level classes while also being part of a fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma. Johnson's father held a high position at a hotel in Florida, and this inspired Johnson to achieve great things in life.

Johnson went from college to New York, moving to find better opportunities up North. He and his brother wrote music, and even had some of their pieces make it to Broadway! Johnson began getting involved in politics, always trying to make a path for African Americans to succeed. He was involved with the election of Teddy Roosevelt for President of the United States in 1904, and was appointed as the head diplomat in first Venezuela, and then Nicaragua. Johnson married Grace Nail in 1910, and she supported her husband in his efforts to advance the prospects of their race in America.

After serving as consul, Johnson returned to the United States, and was deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, a period of growth in African American literature, art, and music that was a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. He was responsible for various books of poetry and novels that brought attention to his cause, and that highlighted the plight of African Americans in the United States. Johnson also served as a high ranking official in the NAACP, and he spoke out against lynchings, reinforcing the idea of education as the way for African Americans to progress in society.

Johnson died at the age of 67 in Maine when the car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His contributions to American society, and more specifically, to the Harlem Renaissance, are substantial, and continue to be recognized today.

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