James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Composers Bob Cole, James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 12, 2022. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/7f947850-e020-0130-79c8-58d385a7b928

African American, Music, Literature, Activism and African American, Music, Theater

James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson

(1871-1938) and (1873-1954)

The Johnson Brothers were born in Jacksonville, Florida. Their Bahamian mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was a musician and teacher at a segregated public school. Their father, James Johnson, raised in Virginia, was a head waiter at Florida’s first winter resort. James Weldon, born in 1871, and J. Rosamond in 1873, grew up in a middle-class home where their mother educated them in classical music and English literature, and their self-educated father taught them Spanish.

Entering Atlanta University Preparatory at age 16, James Weldon advanced to the college level.  While spending three months teaching in the Georgia backwoods during his freshman year, he learned about his own capabilities as well as the richness of Black cultural traditions. He earned his BA in (1894) and his MA (1904) at Atlanta University, followed by some graduate study at Columbia University. He then returned to teach at the Jacksonville school where he had been a student and his mother had taught, while simultaneously preparing for the bar exam. In 1897, he became the first African American admitted to the Florida state bar since Reconstruction. By 1906, at age 35, he was promoted to principal of the school, then Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to be a diplomat in Venezuela and Nicaragua. When he returned to the states in 1915, he briefly served as editor of the New York Age, then worked as a field secretary and organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and in 1920 was hired as its first executive secretary. Concurrently, he earned recognition as a poet and author, contributing to the artistic energy and output of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1930, he was appointed as the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University, and in 1934, he was hired as the first African American professor at New York University, where he taught literature and culture.            

At age 4, J. Rosamond was identified as a piano prodigy. After studying at the New England Conservatory, he returned to Jacksonville, to serve as the musical director of the Bethel Baptist Church. He wrote the music to “Lift Every Voice & Sing,” a poem written by his brother, which has become the enduring anthem of the NAACP.  Becoming an internationally acclaimed theatrical performer, composer, and producer of some of the earliest musical comedies by African Americans by age 23, he launched a career in show business, performing and composing with his brother James, and Bob Cole.

Together, the Johnson brothers compiled two volumes of spirituals. In the introduction, James Weldon examined spiritual texts as traditional poetry and analyzed their musical and linguistic performance based on ethnographic knowledge. In the music transcriptions, J. Rosamond harmonized these songs in a way that maintained the original melodic and rhythmic character. The Johnsons preserved these songs as evidence of Black creativity and artistic contributions to American life, countering negative stereotypes of Black people as unthoughtful and imitative people. 

Among their publications of relevance to folklore studies are:

James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, ed., The Books of American Negro Spirituals 2 vols. (1925 and 1926)

J. Rosamond Johnson, ed. Shoutsongs (1936)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)