James Weldon Johnson: The amazing black man you need to know all about
By Yolanda Spivey
James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida to a freeborn Virginian father and a Bahamian mother. He went on to become one of America’s most prolific civil rights leaders and a well known writer of the Harlem Renaissance era. As a young man, Johnson knew his place in life was to serve the African American community—and he did just that—right up until his death.
Here are 10 interesting facts about James Weldon Johnson that may interest you:
He had an interesting familial background– Johnson’s maternal grandparents, Hester Argo and Stephen Dillet, escaped Haiti in 1802 with their three children. While they were headed to Cuba, pirates intercepted their boat bringing them to Nassau, Bahamas were the family settled. His grandfather was the first Black man to win a seat in the Bahamian legislature.
He changed the face of education in the south– While still a freshman in college, Johnson taught descendants of former slaves in a rural school district in Georgia. He said in his autobiography that that experience meant so much to him in his educational career. After graduating, he returned back to his native Jacksonville, Florida where he taught Black students. There, after rising to the ranks of principal, he extended the years of schooling for Black children by adding the ninth and tenth grades to the school district’s curriculum.
He was the first Black man to be admitted to the Florida Bar Exam– While working as a teacher, Johnson took the Bar exam and passed. He stated in his autobiography that in order to gain admission to the state bar, he had to take a two hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. One of the examiners was so disgusted that a Black man was being admitted to the bar, that he left the room. This propelled Johnson to work in the civil rights sector.
He created the Black National anthem– James Weldon Johnson was also a composer. As a young man, he moved to New York City with his brother Rosamond where they both collaborated as songwriters for several Broadway shows. He wrote the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” as a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday, but the song quickly became known as the “Negro National Anthem,” and was heavily promoted by the NAACP.
He was a famous writer during the Harlem Renaissance era– Johnson loved everything Black and appreciated black writers, musicians and artist. During his time as a writer, he published a book of poetry where he used “black vernacular,” a very controversial way of writing during that time. His most well known book to date is, The Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man, which he published under an anonymous name.
He was an important man during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency– Johnson participated in Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential campaign to which he was appointed as a consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906 to 1908 and Nicaragua from 1909 to 1913.
His work with the NAACP put him on the map– Johnson started out as a field secretary at the NAACP and quickly rose in ranks as one of their most successful officials. During his time at the NAACP, he completed several successful anti-lynching campaigns, and also helped the organization expand its chapters in the South. He was the first black president of the organization for 10 years, between the years of 1920-1930.
His activism expanded outside of the United States– James Weldon Johnson traveled to Haiti and wrote a series of articles in which he exposed the brutal and harsh conditions the Haitians were experiencing at the hands of United States Marines that were occupying the Island. The collection of essays were later composed and printed in book form.
He was the first– Johnson was the first African-American professor employed by New York University. He later was a professor of Creative Literature at Fisk University. That position was created especially for him, as the university wanted to recognize him for his achievements as a writer during the Harlem Renaissance era.
He was loved– On June 26, 1938 Johnson died in an automobile accident while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine. He was only 67 years old. Over 2,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem, New York.
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