Grace and James Weldon Johnson

PBS Documentary planned on life and times of James Weldon Johnson


     PBS and Sondra Kathryn Wilson are working on a one-hour documentary on the life and times of James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

     James Weldon Johnson's diverse talents, plethora of literary and civil rights achievements, and deeply beloved personality make him of one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century and beyond.  A documentary on his life can draw attention both nationally and internationally to a Renaissance man whose lack of recognition in American history is not commensurate with his multiple talents and extraordinary achievements.

     One of the by-products of a documentary on Johnson will be its entertainment value--music, drama, and literature and art. An audience can witness the era of Tin Pan Alley when Cole and the Johnson Brothers' much heralded songs like Under the Bamboo Tree,   Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes, and The Congo Love Song beguiled the entertainment world.  

     The effect of a dramatization of Johnson's most famous volume of poetry, God's Trombones:  Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) is unforgettable.  In the first poem of this collection, The Creation published in 1918, Johnson accomplished what no other black writer had been able to conceive.  He established Standard English as a medium of expression for black writers to document the developing black ethos.  

     The untitled Johnson documentary will tell the uniquely American story of James Weldon Johnson through his own words and music, and through interviews with scholars, musicians, writers, and activists who have followed in his immense footsteps.  Fortunately, Johnson's archives maintain voluminous materials on his many careers.  There is also a wealth of photographs and film footage from the era, which will make this a lively and compelling portrait of James Weldon Johnson and his America.  

     While serving as school principal, Johnson established the first public high school for blacks in the state of Florida. His burning ambition inspired him to become the first of his race to be admitted to the Florida bar. He ventured into journalism by founding The Daily American, a newspaper serving Jacksonville's black population. In 1902, he moved to New York to create with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole some of the most enchanting popular music of the period.  While accepting accolades for their role in developing the Broadway musical, Cole and the Johnson Brothers infused American music with a succession of hit songs laced with the most impressive black folklore and comedy of the period. Johnson's active role in New York local politics earned him an important diplomatic appointment. After serving seven years as a diplomat, he returned to New York to edit The New York Age, the largest African American newspaper in the country. Johnson moved on in "the crusading spirit" of the day to lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and documented through it some of the most extraordinary achievements in American civil rights history.

     Through Johnson's writings, his expression of black identity as a poet, novelist, trailblazing anthologist, songwriter, codifier of the Negro spirituals, and essayist, he established the African American tradition in American literature.  Thus, Johnson has rightly earned the titles godfather of present day black literature in universal life and significant forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance. This indeed validates his golden legacy.

     Former City College of New York President Buell Gallagher said Johnson still speaks.  Particularly and especially he speaks to the younger generations who never knew him as we did…Get to know James Weldon Johnson.  You'll never be the same.