- African American
James Weldon Johnson was a leading figure in African American literature and civil rights during the twentieth century. He was the product of middle-class upbringing in a moderate southern city, Jacksonville, Florida. Consequently his racial sensibilities were not enhanced until he entered Atlanta University and lived in Georgia. During his Atlanta years as a preparatory school and university student, he engaged in numerous debates and made a thorough examination of racial issues. His life is examined here from his early years through his later years—as diplomat in Latin American countries, as executive secretary at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as a noted poet, anthologist, and educator.
James Weldon Johnson was the epitome of the Renaissance man and a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance. This gifted American educator, poet, journalist, diplomat, social critic, anthologist, lawyer, songwriter, and civil rights activist illustrated, along with other talented men and women, why the Harlem Renaissance became a significant force in African American life.
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871, to Helen Louise Dillet and James Johnson, who were free-born blacks. His father served as the headwaiter of the Saint James Hotel, a prominent white hotel in Jacksonville; his mother worked as a teacher at Edwin M. Stanton School, a private school established by the Freedmen's Bureau and the American Missionary Association. She was the first female African American teacher in a Florida grammar school. Johnson's family was very prominent in the Jacksonville African American community.
After graduating from Stanton School in 1887, Johnson enrolled in Atlanta University's preparatory division, from which he graduated in 1890. He enrolled in the university division of Atlanta University, and during his university years he met Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute. In the course of the summer of 1891 he worked in rural Henry County, Georgia. These university years protected the middle-class Jacksonville native from experiencing raw racial discrimination directly. On campus the “race issue” was discussed by students, but his first and personal encounters with race relations and racial discrimination occurred when he was hired as a rural school teacher in an impoverished Georgia community.
Johnson won Atlanta University's oratory contest and published his first poem in the university's Bulletin in 1892. His poetry became a regular feature in the Bulletin over the next year. In 1894 he received a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors from Atlanta University, where he had acted as commencement speaker. After graduation he was appointed principal and teacher at the Stanton School in Jacksonville.
In 1895, during his tenure as principal, Johnson established the Daily American newspaper; but it folded within eight months due to a lack of funds. The newspaper was part of his growth and sophistication as a political activist in the local community. Its editorials confronted the racial injustice of the time and supported the African American “self-help” movement, so popular during the period. His work was recognized by prominent African Americans such as W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. In future years he would serve for over a decade as an editorial writer at the New York Age.
Johnson studied for the Florida bar with Thomas Ledwith in 1896, becoming the first African American to pass the Florida bar in 1898. Throughout this period he published numerous poems and opened a law firm with his former Atlanta University classmate, Judson Douglass Wetmore. During the summer of 1899 he began to explore a musical career on Broadway and met actor and comedian Bert Williams, composer Will Marion Cook, and producer Oscar Hammerstein. He later entered into a musical collaboration with his brother John Rosamond Johnson and, together, they worked with songwriter and performer Bob Cole and sold numerous songs to other artists such as May Irwin.
In 1900 the Johnson brothers composed words and lyrics for “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing.” Although it was originally written for a special ceremony in celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, the song was later adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and dubbed in popular culture as the “Negro national anthem.” The brothers' success as composers made them very visible and popular within the Brooklyn African American community, and later on James married Grace Nail, an accomplished artist and a prominent Brooklynite.
Over a six-year period Johnson served as a diplomat in several consulates, including the US ones in Nicaragua (1909–13) and Venezuela (1906–8). The Nicaraguan appointment occurred during a particularly tumultuous time for the nation. A rebellion took place against President Adolfo Diaz. American troops were sent to the nation in 1912.
Johnson became the first national field secretary of the NAACP in 1916 and in this capacity had many duties: establishing new branches and investigating racial incidents; organizing a historically significant silent march in New York City to protest lynching; and presenting a congressional testimony regarding American marines' abuse of Haitian citizens in 1920. In that same year the NAACP elevated him to the new position of executive secretary.
Johnson's famous novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man was published in 1912. In 1917 he published his first collection of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems. Later on, during the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson was very productive and creative. He also authored a four-part article in the prominent national magazine The Nation, in which he condemned the American occupation of Haiti. In that same year he wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Creation.” In 1922 he edited a collection of African American verse, The Book of American Negro Poetry, published by Harcourt. He also coedited with his brother two volumes of Negro spirituals published by Viking: The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925) and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926).
In 1925 Johnson was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for his achievements as an author, diplomat, and public servant. Later on he also received the Harmon Award for his work God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (published by Viking in 1927).
Johnson continued his political and literary activism through the 1930s. In 1930 he resigned from his NAACP leadership role and assumed the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at the Fisk University, where he taught and worked on his autobiography, Along This Way (published by Alfred Knopf in 1933). The chair was created for Johnson, in recognition of his contributions and achievements during the Harlem Renaissance. While vacationing with friends, he died in a tragic automobile–train accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938.
SEE ALSO: Black Spirituals; Color Consciousness; Double Consciousness; Harlem Renaissance, Cultural Politics of
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