James Weldon JohnsonJul 6th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1871-1938 James Weldon Johnson was a multitalented and prolifically creative figure in the artistic, political, and civil rights domains of his era. He was responsible for seminal contributions in all of these realms, and was considered one of the primary drivers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the development of the NAACP into an effective vehicle for achieving African Americans’ rights.
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871 in comfortable surroundings. His parents were both from the Bahamas. His father worked as a head waiter in a vacation resort hotel, and his mother was a schoolteacher who imparted a love of literature, music, and art. Johnson, the second of three children, attended the segregated elementary school where his mother taught, but because Blacks were barred from high schools in Jacksonville, he attended Atlanta University in Georgia for both his secondary and undergraduate education, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1894. There, he encountered the depth of Southern poverty and racism. The 30-odd poems he wrote during his Atlanta years reflect this experience.
On graduation at the age of 23, Johnson returned to Jacksonville, and the elementary school he attended, as school principal. He added secondary-level courses, and in 1895, founded the first black daily newspaper in the nation, the Daily American. While the publication succumbed to financial difficulties within a year, it gave Johnson a platform for the development of his philosophy on the advancement of African Americans. His idea of “self help,” similar to that of Booker T. Washington, held that Blacks must advance by individual efforts and initiative. Indeed, his writings attracted the attention of both Washington and the more liberal W.E.B. Du Bois.
Johnson’s interests then expanded to law, which he studied with a local lawyer. In 1898, he became the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. He practiced for several years while serving as school principal and writing poetry. Expanding his range still farther, Johnson discovered a talent for composing musical lyrics when his brother graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and returned home in 1897. Together, they wrote songs, shows, and operas, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for a school celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Spreading by word of mouth and inspiration, the song became known as the “Negro National Anthem” and is still sung today. The brothers moved to New York in 1901 to pursue a Broadway career, and enjoyed enormous success. Over the next five years, they wrote over 200 songs for stage musicals.
Johnson’s restless intellect, frustrated in part by the depiction of African Americans on stage, then turned to literature. He began studying at Columbia University, earning a masters degree in 1904. While at Columbia, he became active in local Republican politics, serving as Treasurer of New York’s Colored Republican Club in support of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential election. With Booker T. Washington’s support, Johnson was rewarded in 1906 with a diplomatic post as U.S. Consul in Puerto Cabell, Venezuela. His duties were light, leaving him free to write poetry and his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. First published anonymously in 1912, the book explored racial attitudes through the story of a light-skinned African American who chooses to pass for White.
His consular career continued with a posting to Corinto, Nicaragua, in 1909, which involved him in the political turmoil of that country. Johnson journeyed to New York in 1910 to marry a prosperous black woman, Grace Nail. In 1913, having failed to secure an advancement to the diplomatic post he sought, Johnson decided there was little opportunity for an African American in the Democratic administration of President Woodrow Wilson. He returned to New York permanently as an editorial writer for the city’s oldest black newspaper, the New York Age, affirming his message of racial pride and self-improvement while advocating for black achievements in literature and the arts.
Civil Rights and the NAACP
In 1916, Johnson was approached by Joel Spingarn, one of the early white leaders of the NAACP, a literature professor at Columbia, and a proponent of Harlem Renaissance writers. Spingarn urged Johnson to attend a conference on racial issues, and soon after invited him to serve as Field Secretary for the NAACP. Johnson accepted and demonstrated strong organizational talent, increasing the number of local branches and members substantially. He became the NAACP’s first black General Secretary in 1920, and helped define the organization as an effective fighter for civil rights. Under his supervision, the NAACP was successfully involved in most of the critical Jim Crow battles of the time, including the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill and other attacks on the legal status of segregationist practices.
Johnson’s literary career continued, along with his involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. In 1927, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was reissued under his name to great interest. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry, two books of American Negro Spirituals, a history of African Americans in New York called Black Manhattan, and his own poetic magnum opus, God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. He was a mentor to younger black writers of the time such as Langston Hughes. By the end of the decade, the demands of his NAACP position became severe. Johnson resigned in 1930, joining the faculty at Fisk University while lecturing widely. His literary output continued with his 1933 autobiography, Along This Way, followed by Negro Americans, What Now? on the merits of integration, and Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems, the last two completed in 1934. In 1938, while traveling to his summer home in Maine, Johnson was killed when his car was struck by a train. Over 2,000 people attended his funeral. In addition to his diverse achievements and the emotional legacy of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Johnson’s key literary works remain in print, and he is remembered for his role in making the NAACP an effective national organization capable of historic advances in civil rights.