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Sat, 06.17.1871

James Weldon Johnson, Lyricist, and Composer born

James W. Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was born on this date in 1871. He was a Black composer, lyricist, publisher, lawyer, and educator.

He was born in Jacksonville, FL, and encouraged to study English literature and European musical tradition.  He attended Atlanta University with a plan to further the interests of Black people through his own education. After graduation, he took a job as a high school principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville.  He also was admitted to the Florida Bar after becoming a self-educated lawyer.  In 1900, he wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the occasion of Lincoln's birthday.  The song became immensely popular in the Black community and was eventually known as the "Negro National Anthem," or Negro National Hymn.

Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to collaborate with his brother John Rosamond Johnson, a composer, and became successful as a songwriter for Broadway, but decided to take a job as U. S. Consul to Venezuela in 1906. While employed by the diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in the Century Magazine and The Independent.  On February 3, 1910, he married Grace Nails.  In 1912, Johnson published The "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" under a pseudonym, the story of a musician who rejects his Black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The novel explores the issue of racial identity in the early 20th century, a common theme in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance.

He had a talent for persuading people of differing ideological agendas to work together for a common goal, and in 1920, he became the national organizer for the NAACP. He edited "The Book of American Negro Poetry" in 1922, a major contribution to the history of African American literature. His book of poetry, "God's Trombones" (1927), was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college.  This trip ignited his interest in the African American folk music tradition.

In 1930, at the age of 59, Johnson returned to education after his many years leading the NAACP. He accepted the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The university created the position for him in recognition of his achievements as a poet, editor, and critic. In addition to discussing literature, he lectured on a wide range of issues related to the lives and civil rights of black Americans. He held this position until his death.  James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.

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ASCAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

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