James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938)

 

Was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His maternal great-grandmother, Hester Argo, had escaped from Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) during the revolutionary upheaval in 1802, along with her three young children, including James' grandfather Stephen Dillet (1797–1880).)

James' brother was John Rosamond Johnson, who became a composer. The boys were first educated by their mother, a musician and a public school teacher, before attending Edwin M. Stanton School. Their mother imparted to them her great love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. At the age of 16, Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University, a historically black college, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his studies for the bachelor's degree, he also completed some graduate coursework. Johnson was a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

 

Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s. Johnson is best remembered for his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917.

 

In 1920 he was the first African American to be chosen as executive secretary of the organization, effectively the operating officer. He served in that position from 1920 to 1930. Johnson established his reputation as a writer, and was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture.

Johnson composed the lyrics of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," originally written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday at Stanton School. This song became widely popular and has become known as the "Negro National Anthem," a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted. The song included the following lines:

 

 

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

 

"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" had influenced other artistic works, inspiring art such as Gwendolyn Ann Magee's quilted mosaics. "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" contrasted with W.E.B. Du Bois' exploration in Souls of Black Folk of the fears of post-emancipation generations of African Americans.

 

Legacy and Honors

 

  • Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933-37)

  • Negro Americans, What Now? (1934)

  • Black Manhattan (1930)

  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912-1927)

  • The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931, Editor)

  • The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926, Editor)

  • Anthology, Editor (1925)

  • Saint Peter Relates an Incident Selected Poems (1935)

  • God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)

  • Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)

  • On February 2, 1988, the United States Postal Service issued a 22-cent postage stamp in his honor.

  • The James Weldon Johnson Middle School is named in his honor.

  • The James Weldon Johnson building at Coppin State University is named in his honor.

  • 2007, Emory University in Atlanta established the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies in his honor.

  • Honorary doctorates from Talladega College (1917) and Howard University (1923).

  • 1933, W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro Literature.

  • 1929, Julius Rosenwald Fund Grant

  • 1925, Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for outstanding achievement by an American Negro. 1928, Harmon Gold Award for God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)

  • 1904, Honorary master's degree from Atlanta University.

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