James Weldon Johnson
Poet, teacher, civil rights leader, diplomat: James Weldon Johnson, born 1871 in Jacksonville, FL, made his mark in an amazing number of undertakings. After graduating from Atlanta University in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville and was appointed principal of the public school where his mother had been a teacher. At the same time he studied law, becoming the first African American to pass the Florida bar exam.
In 1900 he and his younger brother, Rosamond, an accomplished musician, wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for a program given by Jacksonville school children to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday. The song became known as the African American national anthem. The brothers began working on a musical comedy that they hoped to present in New York City, where they went to seek their fortunes in musical theater. There they teamed up with actor and song writer Bob Cole. Over the next several years the partners wrote more than 100 songs.
But Johnson wanted to broaden his horizons. He took courses at Columbia University and went to Washington DC to take an exam for the consular service. In 1906, he was appointed U.S. Consul to Venezuela and then to Nicaragua, leaving the service in 1912, the same year his first novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” was published – first anonymously and later under his own name.
Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP in 1916 and served as executive secretary from 1920 to 1930. Always an activist, he investigated charges of brutality to Haitians and pushed for passage of an anti-lynching bill in Congress. After retiring from the NAACP he joined the faculty at Fisk University as a creative writing teacher. Best known today for his poetry, his books of verse include “God’s Trombones”, “Fifty Years and Other Poems,” and “Selected Poems.” He published his autobiography, “Along This Way,” in 1933 and died five years later when his car was hit by a train in Wiscasset, ME, while he was driving to his summer home.