View entire season

James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson


Johnson Brothers - James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson


James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871–June 26, 1938) was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His maternal great-grandmother, Hester Argo, had escaped from Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) during the revolutionary upheaval in 1802, along with her three young children, including James' grandfather Stephen Dillet (1797–1880). Although originally headed to Cuba, their boat was intercepted by privateers and they were taken to Nassau, where they permanently settled. In 1833 Stephen Dillet became the first man of color to win election to the Bahamian legislature.

James' brother was John Rosamond Johnson, who became a composer. The boys were first educated by their mother, a musician and a public school teacher, before attending Edwin M. Stanton School. Their mother imparted to them her great love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. At the age of 16, Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University, a historically black college, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his studies for the bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework.

The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida's first winter resort destinations, inspired young James 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. He knew he was expected to devote himself to helping black people advance. Johnson was a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s.

Over the next 40 years Johnson served in several public capacities, working in education, the diplomatic corps, and civil rights activism. In 1904 he participated in Theodore Roosevelt's successful presidential campaign. After becoming president, Roosevelt appointed Johnson as United States consul at Puerto Cabello. Venezuela from 1906 to 1908, and to Nicaragua from 1909 to 1913.

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail, whom he had met in New York City several years earlier while working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson later collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.

After their return to New York from Nicaragua, Johnson became increasingly involved in the Harlem Renaissance, a great flourishing of art and writing. He wrote his own poetry and supported work by others, also compiling and publishing anthologies of spirituals and poetry.

Johnson was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917. In 1920, he was the first African American to be chosen as executive secretary of the organization, effectively the operating officer. He served in that position from 1920 to 1930.

In 1934 he was the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University. Later in life, he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University, a historically black university.

J. Rosamond Johnson
John Rosamond Johnson (August 11, 1873–November 11, 1954, usually referred to as J. Rosamond Johnson) was an American composer and singer during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he had much of his career in New York City. Johnson is noted as the composer of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing." It was first performed live by 500 Black American students from the segregated Stanton School (elementary/middle/junior high-level), Jacksonville, Florida, in 1900. The song was published by Joseph W. Stern & Co., Manhattan, New York (later the Edward B. Marks Music Company).

J. Rosamond Johnson was the younger brother of poet and activist James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the lyrics for "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The two also worked together in causes related to the NAACP.

Johnson was trained at the New England Conservatory and then studied in London. His career began as a public school teacher in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Traveling to New York, he began his show business career along with his brother and composer Bob Cole. As a songwriting team, they wrote works such as The Evolution of Ragtime (1903). Among the earliest works by the group was a suite of six songs of "Negro" music. The men also produced two successful Broadway operettas with casts of black actors: Shoo-Fly Regiment of 1906 and The Red Moon of 1908.

Johnson also performed in these operettas. He played a Tuskegee soldier who enlists in the Spanish–American War in The Shoo Fly Regiment and portrayed African-American Plunk Green opposite Abbie Mitchell's Minnehaha, a mixed Indian/black woman, in The Red Moon. These performances went beyond theatre. Rosamond, alongside his brother and Cole, evoked a political presence in their inclusion of other races in their musicals. In The Red Moon, Cole and Johnson broke racial lines as they included a love scene between Rosamond's Green and Mitchell's Minnehaha. This spotlight on Native Americans was so well received that Rosamond was inducted as a ‘sub-chief' into the Iroquois tribe of Montreal's Caughnawaga Reservation, which had a majority population of ethnic Mohawk people.

Cole and the Johnson brothers also created and produced several "white" musicals: Sleeping Beauty and the Beast in 1901, In Newport in 1904, and Humpty Dumpty in 1904. Johnson would also collaborate to create Hello Paris with J. Leubrie Hill in 1911.

Johnson was active in various musical roles during his career. He toured the vaudeville circuit and, after Cole's 1911 death, began a successful tour with Charles Hart and Tom Brown. In London, he wrote music for a theater review from 1912 to 1913 serving a long residency. After returning to the United States, New York's Music School Settlement for Colored – founded by the New York Symphony Orchestra's David Mannes – appointed him as director where he served from 1914 to 1919.

J. Rosamond Johson served as the first Deputy Marshal for the historic Negro Silent Protest Parade in 1917.

Johnson also toured with his own ensembles, The Harlem Rounders and The Inimitable Five. He also performed in Negro spiritual concerts with Emmanuel Taylor Gordon, including at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan.

The London production of Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1936 engaged Johnson as musical director. During the 1930s, Johnson also sang the role of Frazier in the original production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, taking roles in other dramas as well. He reprised his role as Frazier on the 1951 studio recording of Porgy and Bess.

As an editor, he collected four important works of traditional African-American songs. The first two of these song collections he compiled along with his brother James: The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925) and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926). In addition, Johnson edited Shoutsongs (1936) and the folksong anthology Rolling Along in Song (1937).

He died on November 11, 1954 in New York City. His widow, Nora E. Floyd Johnson, died in 1969.

Photograph by ASCAP

Meet a Musician

Karl Fenner