James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois: Squabbling Brothers by Bernard A. Drew
The following is adapted from a chapter in my Dr. Du Bois Rebuilds His Dream House (Attic Revivals Press, 2006). Citations are from letters in Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and Archive, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Entertainer, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) called his summer place in Great Barrington, Mass., Five Acres. It was in this town that he completed several of his works, including, in 1926, five of his seven “sermons” for God’s Trombones. He sometimes wrote at a table at the Mason Library, before he built a small writing studio behind his house. Johnson’s wife, Grace (1885-1976), whom he married in 1910, was Harlem real estate entrepreneur Jack Nail’s sister. That’s how Nail and his wife, also named Grace, were introduced to the Berkshires. The Nails also bought a small house in Seekonk, just up the dirt road from Five Acres.
Johnson said in his autobiography that the area was conducive to a particularly intense writing period: “I had been helped to keep the pace because Miss [Mary White] Ovington had generously given me and [wife] Grace the use of her place, Riverbank, in the Berkshire Hills [neighboring town of Alford], for several summers. In 1926 I bought a little place in the township of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I rode one day by an overgrown place where a little red barn was all that stood out amongst the weeds; the house on the place had burned down. A bright little river ran under a bridge and circled round behind the barn. On inquiry, I learned that there were five acres in the tract, and I said, ‘This is just the place for me.’ Grace and I studied the possibilities and decided that we would remodel the barn, keeping the interior, with the old hand-hewn beams, just as it was. We did; and named the place Five Acres. There, we have made our home ever since for a part of the year.” Florida-born Johnson studied at Atlanta University and Columbia. Admitted to the Sunshine State bar in 1897, he was the first Negro attorney in that state since the Civil War. On a musical note, he and his brother J. Rosamund Johnson and their friend Bob Cole collaborated in writing popular songs and light opera. The Johnson brothers’ “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1899) was adopted as the Negro national anthem. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as United States consul to Venezuela (1906-09) and to Nicaragua (1909-12). Johnson roved the country for many years as field secretary for the NAACP. The Johnsons were on hand in 1928 when the Du Boises were formally introduced to their new, if dilapidated, summer cottage, the old Burghardt place on Route 23. Du Bois and Johnson were apparently on good terms that day. They had had their moments. In fact, they were in the midst of a disagreement-by-letter over research material Johnson had loaned Du Bois. Here’s how it began eight years earlier, as Johnson outlined it in a 23 May 1928 letter to Du Bois: “Pursuant to a request contained in your letter dated July 24, 1920, I forwarded you certain maps, orders and data to be used in preparation of your history of the Negroes in the Great War. “In a letter dated February 8, 1922 I requested that you return the said data, and in your letter of February 20, 1922 you said:
“‘I am not quite through with your material but hope to be in a few months. I should thank you for letting me keep it for that time.’
“In a letter dated May 28, 1927 I again requested the return of my material, and in your letter of June 2, 1927 you said:
“‘I hope to be able to return all of the material not later than October 1st. Will you kindly let me know if this will be satisfactory to you?’
“In a letter dated September 23, 1927 I reminded you of your promise to return my material and in a letter dated September 28, 1927 your Secretary informed me:
“'Dr. DuBois is out of town at present and will not be back for over a week. He has not had time to get at the material as yet and I cannot tell you just when it will be ready; but I am sure Dr. DuBois will do his best to get it to you in the near future.'”
“Will you be good enough to arrange for the return of my material by June 1, 1928; thereby saving all parties concerned the embarrassment that further delay will entail.” Du Bois answered from 69 Fifth Ave. within three days, promising to return the material, but unable to say when (Du Bois to Johnson, 26 May 1928). This didn’t satisfy Johnson. He wrote on his law office stationery from 200 West 135th St. in early June, with rising temper (Johnson to Du Bois, 4 June 1928): “It is difficult for me to reconcile your present attitude with the promise to return my property contained in your letters covering a period of eight years, during which time I had reason to believe I was dealing with a gentleman of honor who would spare no effort in his endeavor to keep his word.” Du Bois wrote back that he would “look up the war matter and return it to you” as soon as he returned from a NAACP meeting in California the following week (Du Bois to Johnson, 11 June 1928). Johnson was guest at the Great Barrington Rotary Club in August 1928. Addressing the subject of “The Negro in American Literature,” he told the gathering at the Oakwood Hotel on Taconic Avenue that he believed that if there had been no Negroes in this country, it would have been a far different nation. By then, Du Bois had unearthed five manila envelopes—he described the contents of each—and wrote Johnson to ask, “Will you kindly tell me if this is the matter which you loaned me?” (Du Bois to Johnson, 15 August 1928.) Johnson wrote back the next day acknowledging it was indeed his material. “I will be glad to call at your office to obtain this matter from whomever you authorize to accept a receipt for the same.” (Johnson to Du Bois, 16 August 1928.) Du Bois did better than that. He messengered the envelopes to Johnson, with a note asking, “Will you kindly look through them and see if all the matter is intact. I am only afraid that some of my helpers might have removed some of the matter and that it is lost in the mass of material. I hope this is not the case. I thank you very much for the use of this material and I am sorry that its return has been so delayed.” (Du Bois to Johnson, 17 August 1928.) Johnson found the material intact and thanked Du Bois by note the same day the package was delivered. (Johnson to Du Bois, 20 October 1928.) It was August. Such an exchange would become unnecessary with the invention of the photocopying machine. Holding no grudge, Johnson handwrote on Five Acres note paper that autumn, “Dear Du Bois. Your Nation article is great. I am feeling first rate. Regards, Johnson.” Du Bois’s typed reply remained formal, if wry. “Thank you very much for your kind words. I am glad you are feeling in good shape.” (Du Bois to Johnson, 23 October 1928.) Johnson had greater visibility in South Berkshire in the 1930s than Du Bois. He signed and gave several of his books to the Mason Library. He and his wife patronized Brinson’s dry cleaners on north Main Street, and the late Eloise Brinson Woods could still picture when his fancy car would pull up out front. There was often a nickel in store for the children. The Berkshire Courier interviewed Johnson at length for “An Afternoon With a Literateur,” 9 September 1927, noting, “For eleven years Mr. Johnson and his charming wife have been summer colonists in this area, spending most of their time and energies in developing ‘Five Acres,’ which is probably best described as an architect’s dream personified.” Johnson died in an accident at a train crossing in Maine. The Berkshire Courier said he was “by whatever measure, an extraordinary man. It probably is not too much to say that he was the most distinguished Negro in the United States. A man of great personal dignity, he fought over the long years—never extravagantly but always with reasonableness—for the just recognition of the black race. He believed in the ability of the American Negro to produce genuinely original art and literature, and he wrote and spoke persuasively of the contributions of the black man, particularly in the fields of poetry and music. He was a shrewd politician, and rebelled at the idea that the Negro should be used as the catspaw of any one political party. Negroes everywhere, as well as every white American, have every reason to be proud of this long and useful life.” Johnson’s widow lived in semi-seclusion after her husband’s death, but still spent some time in Great Barrington. The house still stands, as does Johnson’s writing cottage, though the property was on the real estate market in 2009.