James Weldon Johnson
A native of Florida, African American James Weldon Johnson was a noted author, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist who lived in Jacksonville for 30 years and then went on to become a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Truly a Renaissance man, his artistic contributions to American literature, music and theatre have had an enormous impact on the history of Florida and beyond.
James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing in collaboration with his brother Rosamond Johnson, a song now recognized as the Black National Anthem. He was also the first Black man to be admitted to the Florida Bar. James Weldon Johnson founded Florida’s first Black newspaper and as principal, transformed Stanton School into the first Black high school in the state of Florida.
James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet and He was first educated by his mother, a musician and a public school teacher. She was the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school. His mother imparted to him her considerable love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music.
At the age of 16 James Weldon Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework there. In 1895, Johnson founded the Daily American, a newspaper devoted to reporting on issues pertinent to the black community.
Though the paper only lasted a year before it succumbed to financial hardship, it addressed racial injustice and, in keeping with Johnson's upbringing, asserted a self-help philosophy that echoed Booker T. Washington. Of the demise of the paper he wrote in his autobiography, Along This Way,"The failure of the Daily American was my first taste of defeat in public life.
In 1897, James Weldon Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since Reconstruction. He was also the first African American in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar. In order to receive entry Johnson underwent a two-hour examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room.
In 1901, James Johnson moved to New York City with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson to work in musical theater. The partnership of James Weldon Johnson, Bob Cole of Atlanta and Rosamond Johnson became one of the most influential song composition and musical show writing teams in New York in the early twentieth century. These men elevated the "Negro Songs" from music that promoted negative stereotypes of African Americans to sophisticated tunes that were used in Broadway musicals.
Along with his brother, he produced such hits as "Tell Me, Dusky Maiden" and "Nobody's Looking but the Owl and the Moon". His brother James was appointed by he New York Symphony Orchestra's David Mannes, to New York's Music School Settlement for Colored, as director where he served from 1914 to 1919. With his own ensembles, The Harlem Rounders and The Inimitable Five, J. Rosamond Johnson toured and performed in Negro spiritual concerts with Taylor Gordon.
James Weldon Johnson composed the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," originally written for a celebration of Lincoln's birthday at Stanton School. This song would later become to be known as such the Negro National Anthem. After successes with their songwriting and music the brothers worked Broadway and collaborated with producer and director Bob Cole.
In 1904 Johnson went on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential Campaign. Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906–1908 and then Nicaragua from 1909–1913. During his six-year stay in Hispanic America Johnson completed his most famous book The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man which was published anonymously in 1912. It was only during 1927 that Johnson admitted his authorship, stressing that it was not a work of autobiography but mostly fictional.
Other works include The Book of American Negro Spirituals, Black Manhattan, his exploration of the contribution of African-Americans to the culture of New York, and Negro Americans, What Now?, a book advocating civil rights for African Americans.
In December 1930, Johnson accepted the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, where he lectured not only on literature but also on a wide range of issues to do with the life and civil rights of black Americans. He held this position until his death in an automobile accident in 1938.