James Weldon Johnson

Celebrate Black History

James Weldon JohnsonJames Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938), civil-rights leader, poet, and novelist, was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of James Johnson, a resort hotel headwaiter, and Helen Dillet, a schoolteacher. He grew up in a secure, middle-class home in an era, Johnson recalled in Along This Way (1933), when “Jacksonville was known far and wide as a good town for Negroes” because of the jobs provided by its winter resorts. After completing the eighth grade at Stanton Grammar School, the only school open to African Americans in his hometown, Johnson attended the preparatory school and then the college division of Atlanta University, where he developed skills as a writer and a public speaker. Following his graduation in 1894 Johnson returned to his hometown and became principal of Stanton School.

School teaching, however, did not satisfy his ambitions. While continuing as principal Johnson started a short-lived newspaper and then read law in a local attorney’s office well enough to pass the exam for admission to the Florida state bar. He also continued to write poetry, a practice he had started in college. In early 1900 he and his brother Rosamond, an accomplished musician, collaborated on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” an anthem commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. African-American groups around the country found the song inspirational, and within fifteen years it had acquired a subtitle: “The Negro National Anthem.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was not the only song on which the brothers collaborated. In 1899 the two spent the summer in New York City, where they sold their first popular song, “Louisiana Lize.” In 1902 they left Jacksonville to join Bob Cole, a young songwriter they had met early on in New York, in the quickly successful Broadway songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Brothers. Over the next few years Johnson was largely responsible for the lyrics of such hit songs as “Nobody’s Lookin’ but de Owl and de Moon” (1901), “Under the Bamboo Tree” (1902), and “Congo Love Song” (1903).

In 1917 Johnson joined the staff of the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He worked as field secretary, largely responsible for establishing local branches throughout the South and for increasing overall membership from 10,000 to 44,000 by the end of 1918. In 1920 Johnson became the NAACP’s first African-American secretary (its chief operating officer), a position he held throughout the 1920s.

Johnson was probably better known in the 1920s for his literary efforts than for his leadership of the NAACP. He played an active role, as an author and as a supporter of young talent, in what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson urged writers and other artists to draw on everyday life in African-American communities for their creative inspiration. He played the role of a father figure to a number of young writers, including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, whose often blunt prose and poetry drew condemnation from more genteel critics.

Johnson took deserved pride in his accomplishments across a wide variety of careers: teacher, Broadway lyricist, poet, diplomat, novelist, and civil-rights leader. Though he suffered most of the indignities forced on African Americans during the Jim Crow era, Johnson retained his sense of self-worth; he proclaimed forcefully in Negro Americans, What Now? that “My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.” The defense of his “inner life” did not mean withdrawal, but active engagement. Thus Johnson was a key figure, perhaps the key figure, in making the NAACP a truly national organization capable of mounting the attack that eventually led to the dismantling of the system of segregation by law.

Though he died in a tragic automobile accident while vacationing in Maine in June of 1938, Johnson continues to be remembered for his unflappable integrity and his devotion to human service. 

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This Day In Black History(Feb. 2): 

1. While working in Pittsburgh as a porter Alfred L. Cralle noticed that the popular treat ice cream, was difficult to dispense. It stuck to spoons and ladles and usually required two hands and at least two implements to serve. Cralle invented a mechanical device now known as the ice cream scoop and applied for a patent. On February 2, 1897, the 30-year old was granted U.S. Patent #576395. 

2. Musician Al McKay born. McKay is a former member of Earth, Wind & Fire. Al is a left-handed guitar player. 

3. South African President FW de Klerk lifted the 30 year ban on the African National Congress. In a televised speech de Klerk also announced his commitment to release jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela.

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