James Weldon Johnson (pictured) lives on in history and is often best-known for his leadership of the NAACP by becoming the organization’s first Black manager. Johnson was born in to a family that promoted education, and as a result, he went on to achieve amazing feats despite living in a time period that still shunned educated African Americans. NewsOne takes a look back in to the life and triumphs of James Weldon Johnson on his birthday.
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Fla., to parents Helen Louise Dillet and James. Johnson’s mother was the first Black female teacher in Florida and taught her son literature and music in order to bolster his studies. Johnson’s father was a headwaiter at a posh hotel; Johnson was inspired to succeed based on watching his father’s hard work.
Consequently, Johnson entered Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta) at the age of 16, graduating in 1894.
As a college freshman, Johnson went to a rural community in Georgia to teach children of former slaves. The experience changed him, giving him the motivation to do more for his people.
Johnson shared in written account in 1891 of the venture:
In all of my experience, there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia. I was thrown for the first time on my own resources and abilities.
Johnson kept education as the core of his work, heading Jacksonville’s largest school in 1906 at age 35. Although Johnson was qualified as any other principal, he received less than half the wages of White principals who led schools of his size. Johnson added ninth and tenth grade courses to the Stanton School (now Stanton College Prep), improving the stakes for the young people there by virtue of challenging them.
During his time at Stanton, Johnson was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as U.S. Consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and later married Grace Nail (pictured at right) in 1910. The pair was familiar with each other as they crossed paths during Johnson’s time as a songwriter in New York in 1901. One of Johnson’s greatest achievements was penning the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was set to music by his brother and composer, John Rosamond Johnson.
Working in the Foreign Service during his diplomatic years, Johnson wrote his most well-known book, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” which was published in 1912. While the book was a novel, it was inspired by events in Johnson’s life and based on accounts from friends and associates. The premise of the book detailed the struggles of a biracial man living in post-Reconstruction-era America in the late-19th to early 20th centuries.
In 1920, Johnson became the first African-American manager of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Working for the NAACP since 1916 as a field secretary, Johnson’s devotion to civil rights activism was affirmed. In 1919, he organized protests against the racially motivated riots of that year and coined the term “Red Summer,” after Whites began attacking Blacks in dozens of cities across the country. Historians say that the tensions between Blacks and Whites grew as a result of the ending of World War I and veterans on both sides clamoring for jobs and housing.
Johnson gained prominence in the NAACP, rising to the ranks of secretary for the organization, becoming the first man to do so. However, He would leave his post in 1930 to accept the Spence Chair of Creative Literature position at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Lecturing on literature, civil rights, and a host of other issues as they related to Black Americans, Johnson’s position solidified his status as one of the Harlem Renaissance’s greatest minds. The position was created for him because of his achievements as an author, poet, and educator.
Johnson tragically lost his life in 1938 while vacationing in Maine. A train struck his car while he was driving it in the small town of Wiscasset. He was 67.
Johnson’s life and his lists of achievements cannot be captured in a few paragraphs. What he was able to obtain from hard work and focusing on his own ascension while promoting the same in others speaks volumes about his integrity and preserves his ongoing legacy. Johnson is forever cemented in the annals of history as a man who did not allow his surroundings or other barriers to keep him from being all he could be.
Rest In Powerful Peace, James Weldon Johnson!