James Weldon Johnson
June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938
Notable: Writer & Activist
James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, one of his parents’ two sons. His father, also named James (though it seems they were not Jr. and Sr.) had been born free in Virginia while his mother, Helen, had been born in the Bahamas and both parents had experienced living in the North. The elder James earned a living as the headwaiter at a resort hotel while Helen worked as a school teacher.
Despite the era and living in the South, the Johnsons made it a point to shield their sons from the constraints society typically placed on Black people during and after slavery. Both parents stressed the importance of education and Johnson’s mother shared her appreciation for the arts and encouraged his interests in these areas. Many Black families of the time highly valued education because it had been kept from them during slavery. But the Johnson’s financial stability provided access to the arts that few other Black families could afford.
Johnson’s mother was a teacher at the Stanton School which is where he spent his primary and middle school years. As was common at the time, the school was segregated and after Johnson completed the eighth grade, there was no high school in Jacksonville that admitted Black students. Continuing his education required Johnson to relocate to Atlanta where he could attend high school and college at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University).
It was while studying in college that Johnson gained a greater awareness of the plight of Black people in America. Race with regards to ideologies and ideas for progress was a hot topic amongst students and Johnson became involved in these conversations. To a degree, his parents were able to disregard the race-based limitations that society placed on Black people as a result of their mindset and relative financial stability. But Johnson was exposed to the reality of the oppression of Black people when he spent two summers teaching Black children in a poor rural area of Georgia. These experiences inspired Johnson’s early poetry.
After graduating with a BA in 1894, Johnson returned to his alma mater in Jacksonville as a teacher and later became the school’s principal. During his tenure, Johnson expanded Stanton’s curriculum so local Black students could obtain a high school education without relocating. In addition to his teaching duties, Johnson was socially and politically active concerning Black issues. He also established the short-lived but first Black-focused daily newspaper in America, the Daily American.
As was common at the time, Johnson began studying law under the guidance of a lawyer and after two years he took and passed the Florida State Bar. This accomplishment made Johnson the first Black person admitted to Florida’s State Bar since the Reconstruction Era. For several years Johnson balanced.
Yet despite the demands of his careers, Johnson continued to express himself through the arts by writing music and poems. It was during this period that Johnson collaborated with his brother, Rosamond, a composer, and created “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song was adopted by the NAACP and became “the Negro National Anthem.” In 1900, the brothers relocated to New York City and formed a songwriting trio with Bob Cole, “Those Ebony Offenbachs,” which composed about 200 songs for Broadway.
Continuing his education, Johnson studied creative literature at Columbia University. He also made political connections through his membership in the Republican Party and specifically New York’s Colored Republican Club. Collaborating on two campaign songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential run and his relationship with Booker T. Washington led to Johnson being appointed to diplomatic positions in Latin America. His first post in Venezuela gave Johnson a lot of free time. During this period, he continued writing poetry and wrote his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), which was initially published anonymously.
Johnson resigned from his post and returned to America in 1914 where he began writing content for Black publications. Just two years later, he was serving as the NAACP’s national field secretary. In that role, he helped to increase awareness, membership, and local branches. One of the most high-profile national initiatives of this period was the Campaign Against Lynching. Johnson’s most notable contribution to this movement was organizing the “Silent March” on New York’s 5th Avenue in which an estimated 10,000 protestors participated. He also wrote an exposé about conditions for Black people in Haiti during the country’s occupation by US Marines which had political ramifications at the congressional and presidential levels.
In 1920, Johnson ascended to executive secretary of the NAACP and led the organization until his retirement a decade later. Under his leadership, the NAACP pushed back against segregation, lynching, and voter suppression. He was an active member of the Republican Party but eventually grew disenchanted with the lack of attention the Republican Party gave to the needs of the Black community. This led to him leaving the party and joining other political groups though the disregard of Black needs would prove to be much the same.
Johnson was steeped in the leadership of the NAACP’s political and social activism in the 1920s. But he also became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance as he compiled and published collections of Black poetry, music, and literature. After retiring from the NAACP in 1930, Johnson accepted a part-time position teaching creative writing at Fisk University and later became the first Black professor at New York University. Unfortunately, just a few years later James Weldon Johnson died at the age of 67 in a car accident. He was survived by his wife and fellow activist Grace Nail Johnson.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “James Weldon Johnson.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. November 12, 2021. https://www.biography.com/writer/james-weldon-johnson.
- “James Weldon Johnson.” 2021. NAACP. May 11, 2021. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/james-weldon-johnson.
- “James Weldon Johnson.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Accessed November 13, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-weldon-johnson.
- Simba, Malik. 2007. “James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).” Blackpast.org. January 19, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/johnson-james-weldon-1871-1938/.
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