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James Weldon Johnson collection

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 797

Scope and Content Note

The James Weldon Johnson collection includes correspondence, literary manuscripts (by Johnson and others), printed materials, audio-visual materials, sheet music, legal documents, financial records, and general ephemera, dating from ca. 1886 to 1980 (bulk 1916-1930).

A small portion of the collection is correspondence, including letters to and from family, friends and associates in literary and other professional fields. These letters date from the 1880s up to 1980, the earliest occurring between the parents of Grace Nail Johnson. Most of the letters in this series fall between 1924 to 1930 and, also, between 1972 to 1978. Most of these letters relate to Johnson's literary and musical compositions. Prominent correspondents include William Stanley Braithwaite, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Charles S. Johnson.

Also significant are typed drafts of Johnson's individual poems and speeches and copies of his pamphlets, programs, promotional material, and sheet music with his song lyrics. In addition, there are various tributes in journals and programs, and other materials honoring Johnson's life and work particularly related to his association with the Harlem Renaissance movement and his work at Fisk University and for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Printed materials collected by Johnson's family include catalogs, pamphlets, booklets, sheet music, newspaper clippings and other ephemera.

The audio-visual materials consists of an extensive collection of photographs and several photograph albums depicting Johnson; his wife, Grace Nail Johnson; their families and friends; and their country home, Five Acres, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Among the important figures represented in photographs are W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and Carl Van Vechten (whose photography is also included). The phonograph albums include three recordings of Johnson's God's Trombones.

Other items, such as legal and financial documents, are arranged chronologically. The final series in this collection is general ephemera, which includes Johnson's handwritten notes, dance cards from the early 1900s, personalized cards and stationery, and a map locating Johnson's grave.


  • circa 1886-1980
  • Majority of material found within ( 1916-1930)

Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Restrictions on Access

Unrestricted access.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Printed or manuscript music in this collection that is still under copyright protection and is not in the Public Domain may not be photocopied or photographed. Researchers must provide written authorization from the copyright holder to request copies of these materials. “The Prodigal Son (A Sermon in Swing)" is the only piece of sheet music in this collection that appears to still be in copyright; copyright for this item was renewed in 1967.

Biographical Note

James Weldon Johnson, African-American educator, journalist, diplomat, lyricist, poet, and human rights activist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871, to James and Helen Louise Dillet Johnson. He was raised in a comfortable, middle-class setting in which his father, as a headwaiter, and his mother, as a public school teacher, achieved economic security for their family. Their mother encouraged Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond, in their intellectual and artistic pursuits.

Although Johnson attended Stanton School in Jacksonville, which only extended through the eighth grade, he continued his education at Atlanta University, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1894. After graduation, he returned to Florida and served as the Stanton School principal, which he expanded to high school status. In addition, Johnson founded a short-lived newspaper, Daily American, and passed the Florida bar examination, after which he worked briefly as a lawyer. He later moved to New York in 1902, where he performed in a musical trio, with his brother Rosamond and Bob Cole, and wrote the lyrics to more than 200 popular songs. During this time, he met and, in 1910 married, Grace Nail Johnson, the daughter of John Bennett Nail, a successful real estate entrepreneur. Johnson also served as American Consul, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, in Central America and South America, from 1906 to 1913.

After his consular service, Johnson joined the staff of the New York Age, which later led him to join the NAACP in 1916 to fight racial prejudice and discrimination. All of these activities he engaged in while perfecting his literary talents as a poet and writer. Johnson was a founder and senior member of the Harlem Renaissance guiding and influencing many of the younger writers of the period, among them Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen.

In 1930, Johnson retired from the NAACP to accept a teaching position at Fisk University. There, he served until his death by automobile accident on June 26, 1938. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.


6.25 linear feet (11 boxes); 6 oversized bound volumes (OBV); 2 oversized papers boxes (OP); AV Masters: .25 linear feet (CLP3)


Collection of papers relating to James Weldon Johnson, African-American educator, journalist, diplomat, lyricist, poet, and human rights activist, including correspondence, literary manuscripts (by Johnson and others), printed materials, audio-visual materials, sheet music, legal documents, financial records, and general ephemera.

Arrangement Note

Organized by record type: (1) General correspondence, (2) Writings by James Weldon Johnson, (3) Writings about James Weldon Johnson, (4) General printed material, (5) Audio-visual materials, (6) Legal documents, (7) Financial documents, and (8) Ephemera.


Gift, 1997.

Related Materials in Other Repositories

James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson papers, Yale University Library, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


Control level 3


File name: johnson797.doc


Processed by Susan Potts McDonald and Janell Hobson, December 1998.

Control level 3

File name: johnson797.doc

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James Weldon Johnson collection, circa 1886-1980 (bulk 1916-1930)
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
March 7, 2005
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • July 29, 2015: Finding aid revised to include enhanced metadata tagging.

Repository Details

Part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library Repository

540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta Georgia 30322 United States