James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was a prominent African American leader born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. He was brought up in a liberal environment where his parents encouraged him to acquire an education and pursue his dreams. His mother taught him and his brother the works of classical literature as well as music. After finishing high school, Johnson took admission in Clark Atlanta University from where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1894.  He then returned to his hometown to work as the principal of the Stanton School. He was only 23 years old at the time.

One of Johnson’s earliest accomplishments was to establish a newspaper centered on issues faced by the black community. He named it the “Daily American”. The publication only lasted for one year before it succumbed to financial troubles. However, it helped him to establish his presence in society and brought him into the notice of eminent personalities such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Johnson then decided to study law and became the first African American to pass the bar exams. He established a successful practice in Jacksonville while his brother studied at the New England Conservatory of Music. Eventually Jackson joined his brother in New York where they both began writing songs for Broadway musicals. Together they wrote over 200 songs, but the most famous one was “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. This was originally written as a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday but was later hailed as the “black anthem” by National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

James Weldon Johnson was a prolific author and wrote several books and poems including “God’s Trombones” in 1927 and “Fifty Years and Other Poems” in 1917. He was an important part of the African American group known as the Harlem Renaissance and contributed several books, poems and lectures. It was during this time that he wrote “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” in 1912 which he first published anonymously and only later admitted to being the author in 1927. Some of his other works include “The Book of American Negro Poetry”, “Black Manhattan” and “His Negro Americans, What Now?” Johnson was also keen to promote other young writers and emerging artists and used his influence within literary spheres to further their cause.

Johnson was also an influential public speaker and served many important positions such as treasurer of the “Colored Republican Club” and editor of the “New York Age”. He was also an active member of the NAACP and served as the executive secretary for several years. He organized mass demonstrations and peaceful protests against relevant issues such as the Anti-Lynching Bill passed in 1921. In 1906 Johnson was appointed by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as the United States consul to Venezuela and later as the consul to Nicaragua. During his tenure, he used his diplomatic influence to curb a rebellion against the Nicaraguan president.

He stepped down from his position as the Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1931 but remained on the board of directors. He then accepted a position as a professor at Fisk University which he held for the rest of his life. He taught creative writing classes and American literature there. He was also the first African American professor at New York University. James Weldon Johnson was married Grace Nail, who belonged to an influential African American family. He died on June 26, 1938 at the age of 67.

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