A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson was a man of many talents. Not only was he a distinguished lawyer and diplomat who served as executive secretary at NAACP for a decade, he was also a composer who wrote the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black national anthem.
DUAL CAREER IN EDUCATION AND LAW
Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was heavily influenced by his mother, who passed on her love of music and literature, interests that would follow him throughout his multifaceted career. After graduating in 1894 from Atlanta University, a historically Black college, Johnson returned to Jacksonville and taught at the Stanton elementary school for Black students. Once he became principal, Johnson expanded the school to include high school education.
While at Stanton, he also began studying law and in 1898 became the first Black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. While balancing his dual career in education and law, Johnson still found time to write poetry and songs, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
SONGWRITER AND DIPLOMAT
In 1901, Johnson moved with his brother, a composer, to New York City to write for musical theater. Together, they composed about 200 songs for Broadway. In New York, Johnson began making connections to influential members of the Black community, leading to the next stage of his career in diplomacy.
After serving as treasurer for the Colored Republican Club, Johnson was sent to become the United States consul in Venezuela by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Three years later, he was moved to Nicaragua to serve as consul. During this time, Johnson continued to write poetry and anonymously published his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a story of a young biracial man living in the post-Reconstruction era.
CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER
Johnson left the diplomatic world to join the civil rights movement in 1916 as a field secretary for NAACP, where he helped open new branches and expand membership. He also campaigned for a federal anti-lynching bill and spoke at the 1919 National Conference on Lynching. In 1920, Johnson became NAACP executive secretary, a position he used to fight against segregation and voter disenfranchisement in South.
Johnson believed Black Americans should produce great literature and art in order to demonstrate their equality to whites in terms of intellect and creativity.
Johnson held the top position at NAACP for a decade before resigning to teach creative writing at Fisk University in Nashville, a position created in recognition of his achievements as a writer and his standing as a leading light in the Harlem Renaissance.
HARLEM RENAISSANCE FIGURE
Through the course of his wide-ranging career, Johnson developed a unique philosophy on achieving equality for Blacks and combating racism, one that stood in contrast with views espoused by W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. While Du Bois argued for steeping oneself in a liberal arts education and Booker T. Washington advocated for industrial training, Johnson believed Black Americans should produce great literature and art to demonstrate their equality to whites in terms of intellect and creativity.
Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 67 in a car accident. He had established his place within the Harlem Renaissance with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, republished in 1927, his poetry collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), and the anthology he compiled and edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).