Grace and James Weldon Johnson

Friends and Colleagues Speak

James Weldon Johnson and the Broadway Musical

  Given James Weldon Johnson's almost matchless versatility it may be understandable and somewhat excusable that many scholars have failed to properly weigh his significance in the world of music, particularly the pioneering role he and his brother, J. Rosamond, played in the evolution of the Broadway musical.  You will notice that I said many scholars have ignored the Johnsons' considerable influence in the development of the musical, but this does not include Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, who has been unstinting in her mission to secure and preserve the magnificent legacy of the Johnsons and their prominence in the American canon, including politics, civil rights, literature, linguistics, international affairs and diplomacy.  
    While Dr. Wilson has done a yeoman task of documenting James Weldon Johnson's contribution to American culture, it may be important at this juncture to emphasize the remarkable genius he and his brother brought to the world of American music.   Nearly a generation before Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle combined their extraordinary talents to create the musical score for the Broadway production of Shuffle Along in 1921, the Johnsons and Bob Cole had already paved the way with such notable compositions as Under the Bamboo Tree, The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes, Oh, Didn't He Ramble, and The  Congo Love Song, all of which were popular songs beyond their inclusion in a number of Broadway musicals at the turn of the twentieth century.  
    Here is how James Weldon Johnson recalled those halcyon days in his autobiography Along This Way:  "In the fullness of our vogue there were times when songs of ours were being sung in three or four current musical productions on Broadway.  We managed to break in even upon the rather exclusive Weber and Fields stage with a song for Lillian Russell.  The reviewers built up for us a sort of reputation as physicians for ailing musical plays."
    Not only did the Johnsons and Cole repair several ailing plays, but they were contracted to provide music and lyrics for musicals staged by Klaw and Erlanger, two of the top producers of the day.   It should be noted that many of the songs composed by the Johnsons were published by Edward Marks, and this was part of the financial ballast he needed to stabilize his company.
     Ironically, it was James Weldon Johnson's versatility that led him away from Broadway and into the world of diplomacy.   There were several attempts to resume his songwriting career, but, as he noted, once the vogue had passed it was difficult to capture it again; moreover, the world of literature beckoned and Johnson set about turning the soil for which the seeds of Harlem Renaissance would blossom.

                                           Herb Boyd    
Praise for Along This Way:  The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson

"Ironical, urbane, deft, and reflective...A book any man might be proud to have written about a life any man might be proud to have lived...This life unrolls with something of the sureness and direction which can scarcely be described without reference to the mysteries of genius and destiny which enter into the life of a great man."

                                           Carl Van Doren*

"Along This Way is one of the finest autobiographies written in this century..."
                                          Nathan Irvin Huggins*

Praise for Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson, author
Black Manhattan is not only one of the earliest portraits of the lives and experiences of Americans in a great American city, but it is also a personal, first hand account by one of the nation's most gifted and versatile writers.  James Weldon Johnson did his generation and ours a great favor in writing this book."

                                               John Hope Franklin*

"The chronicling of the urban experience of Afro-Americans begins with Paul Laurence Dunbar's Sport of the Gods and James Weldon Johnson's Black Manhattan.  The enduring cultural and scholarly significance of Johnson's classic virtually speaks for itself."

                                               David Levering Lewis
                                               author of Pulitzer Prize-winning biography
                                               W. E. B. Du Bois

Praise for Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems by James Weldon Johnson

"James Weldon Johnson's name stirs up emotions which are contained only by tremendous control.  {His poetry} is an exhortation to loose the bonds of dreary second-class citizenship and humiliating segregation and devastating racism.  The lyrics bid the reader to be free, to walk with gratitude over ground red with blood of our ancestors; encourage us to be free to bid the day good morning with hopeful heart, to adore the Creator with gladsome hearts for the battles won and to ask of that same Creator for strength for the battles yet to come.  James Weldon Johnson has told our story and sung our song."

                                               Maya Angelou

Praise for The Random House Harlem Renaissance Series by Sondra Kathryn Wilson

"The Crisis Reader offers riches from the heyday of black America's most significant journal.  Here are the now famous names and their now famous poems and articles, and others undeservedly unknown today.  Any serious student of black literature and politics will want this volume, as will many others who long for a look at yesterday, when black bards sang."

                                            Julian Bond

"Felicitously named, Sondra Kathryn Wilson's The Opportunity Reader is precisely that, an opportunity to recover an artistic, literary, and social effulgence of enormous value to students of early twentieth century American culture.  It will win a wide audience."

                                             David Levering Lewis

"The Messenger Reader is a valuable cornucopia that reveals the intellectual and cultural odyssey of black Americans in the twentieth century, a book that belongs in the library of any and all readers concerned about this country's mutiracial future in the century to come."

                                            Charles Johnson, author of the National Book
                                            Award-winning Middle Passage.

Praise for Meet Me at the Theresa by Sondra Kathryn Wilson

Meet Me at the Theresa: The Story of Harlem's Most Famous Hotel brings alive the legendary establishment on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street, which played host to black celebrities of the sports and entertainment worlds, as well as gangsters, quack doctors, black nationalist orators and Communists (including, famously, Fidel Castro in 1960). Its heyday was in the 1940's when blacks, excluded from downtown hotels, came to prefer their own social headquarters. ''The Theresa bar was to blacks what 'Meet me under the clock at the Biltmore' was to whites,'' writes Sondra Kathryn Wilson, a senior associate at the W. E. B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. Her irresistible account, filled with juicy quotations and delicious photographs, does not spare the gossip: we learn that the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson's gorgeous wife, Edna Mae, cheated on him with various women, and that the incomparable singer Dinah Washington gave wild parties in her penthouse suite and cut off one of her younger husband's clothes with a razor blade. At the same time, Wilson offers serious social history about a unique institution that flourished at a time when hotels had a crucial semipublic role to play in city life.  

                                               Review from The New York Times, 2005

On Ollie Jewel Sims Okala    

As a fellow Arkansan and New York City neighbor of Ollie Jewel Sims Okala, I was keenly aware of her devotion to the legacy of James Weldon Johnson.  Mrs. Okala had expressed to me and others on a number of occasions that it was by divine providence that historian Sondra Kathryn Wilson came into her life.  Since those days, I have been gratified to learn that through Dr. Wilson's many years of exhaustive research, numerous scholarly published works, noted lectures, and productions, the renewed interest in James Weldon Johnson is now world-wide.  In 1997, Mrs. Okala and Dr. Wilson established the James Weldon Johnson Papers in Special Collections at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.  Dr. Wilson continues to contribute Grace and James Weldon Johnson's memorabilia to this collection, and to The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

    Mrs. Okala died on September 9, 2001.  At that time, Dr. Wilson became  Executrix of  the Johnson and Okala  estates.  I have no doubt that Mrs. Okala's faith and confidence in Dr. Wilson was well placed.

                                         Evelyn B. Parker, Retired Educator
                                         New York City

*Carl Van Doren (1885-1950) was a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer and personal friend of Grace and James Weldon Johnson.

*Nathan Irvin Huggins (1927-1989) was the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of American History and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

*John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) was a student at Fisk University in the 1930s.  During this time, he came to know James Weldon Johnson as a professor and mentor.  Throughout the years, Prof. Franklin offered his unwavering support for my efforts to promote James Weldon Johnson's legacy, and his advice was invaluable to many other projects as well.  At the time of his death, John Hope Franklin was the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus in the History Department at Duke University.

Posted by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, August 9, 2009.