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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 647

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This is the grave of James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson.

Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson came from a family with a lot of black pride. His maternal grandfather Stephen Dillet had been the first black man to win election to the legislature of the Bahamas, for instance. James’ brother J. Rosamond Johnson would become a well-known composer. Johnson started at Atlanta University at the age of 16. He moved back to Jacksonville, where he taught high school, focusing on the development of black pride. While there, he wrote the lyrics and Rosamond the music to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” one of the anthems of civil rights. In fact, I was at a Black History Month event on campus in February (remember when we could do those things) and it started with people singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In 1897, he passed the Florida bar and also started a newspaper called the Daily American Newspaper, which fought against lynching, among other things.

Johnson moved to New York around 1900 and enrolled at Columbia to continue his studies, majoring in English and drama. He worked with his brother, writing lyrics for Rosamond’s Broadway shows. In 1904, he wrote a song in favor of Theodore Roosevelt‘s election that, in combination with another song he wrote about Booker T. Washington, made him a young and talented rising star in the black community. And in the Republican Party of that time, such a combination could still mean patronage for black men, even in Roosevelt was already doing notably less of this than his predecessors (McKinley was also bad at this). That patronage meant being named consul to the diplomatic post at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. He remained in diplomacy for nearly a decade, leaving only in 1913. In 1909, he transferred to a post in Nicaragua.

In 1910, back in the U.S. for a bit, Johnson married Grace Nail. She came from one of the nation’s wealthiest black families. The Nails owned a whole bunch of real estate in Harlem that became the home for many of the African-Americans in the Great Migration. That meant they were basically slumlords, but it was what it was. Even W.E.B. DuBois was a slumlord on properties he owned. She was born in 1885 in New London, Connecticut. The family moved to Brooklyn when she was a child, even though they were buying in Manhattan. Marrying into such a family was a coup for Johnson, placing him squarely within the nation’s black elite and with all that meant.

Throughout his time in Latin America, Johnson continued writing. He published poetry and essays in various magazines. Then, in 1912, he published his classic The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. One of the true groundbreaking works of African-American literature, Johnson published it anonymously. It’s not actually an autobiography–it tells the story of a black man who can pass as white, whereas Johnson was not overly dark, but clearly black. He published it anonymously primarily so that he didn’t gain negative attention that threatened his diplomatic career, but he left that in 1913 anyway. He actually didn’t acknowledge that he wrote it until 1927. The book’s narrator is someone who plays on both sides of the color line, at first engaging in being black, then finding that too restricting and choosing to live as white, which he then regrets. In it, he discusses the reality of interracial sex, the development of ragtime music, and explores black humor.

In 1913, Johnson and Grace moved back to New York, where they both became critical figures in the Harlem Renaissance. He got a job writing for the New York Age and then a staff position with the NAACP. He was initially closer to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist approach, but by 1917, he was working closely with W.E.B. DuBois to organize the Silent Parade, a march of African-Americans through the streets of New York to protest the outbreak of anti-black violence in the nation that would partially define the World War I homefront. Johnson became a field secretary for the NAACP and traveled through the nation, building the organization. He was very good at this. When he started in 1916, it had 9,000 members. In 1920, it had expanded to 90,000. And while not all of this was because of Johnson’s work, much of it was and he was widely recognized as an outstanding organizer.

Johnson became the NAACP’s first black executive secretary in 1920, where he continued building the organization. He went far to professionalize the organization and developed sophisticated media strategy. He mentored the next generation of leadership, hiring Walter White, for instance. He lobbied furiously for anti-lynching legislation. And lest we forget what a horrible institution the Senate has always been, in 1921, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill that Johnson worked so hard for passed the House by 230-119 vote before the Senate killed it through a filibuster. This is a good reminder that with a modicum of democracy, we could have a lot more good things in this country. Alas.

In the 1920s, Grace Nail Johnson was a leading feminist in New York. She also supported civil rights causes of course, but was more active than just that. She was the only black member of the Heterodoxy Club, that famed group of radical feminists based out of Greenwich Village. Her family’s real estate empire fell apart in the Great Depression and James and Grace had to write and work in the NAACP to make ends meet. They did fine with that, though they had to save her family by finding them positions too. She founded the NAACP’s Junior League in 1929. In 1932, Grace, who was light enough to pass as white, did so with her friend Nella Larsen on a driving trip through Tennessee, which they then wrote about.

James continued his literary work too. He was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, editing the Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922 and co-editing with his brother The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925 and its sequel in 1926. After he admitted to writing The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his fame grew even more. He began to publish more under his own name, including an actual autobiography in 1933. Johnson resigned from the NAACP in 1931 to became a literature professor at Fisk University in Nashville and then took a similar job at NYU. Sadly, in 1938, he was vacationing in Maine when his car hit a moving train. He was killed instantly. Grace was in the car but survived.

Grace remained active after James’ death. She was part of a group of black women invited to the White House in 1941 to discuss race relations with Eleanor Roosevelt. She had always been active in promoting African-American children’s literature, which really didn’t exist before the Harlem Renaissance, and she continued that work as well. She also was determined to solidify her husband’s legacy and worked with Yale University to archive his papers, as well as other Harlem Renaissance writers. She built up that collection until her death in 1976.

James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Harlem Renaissance, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Nella Larsen is in Brooklyn, though not at Green-Wood. Langston Hughes is in the floor of the Arthur Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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