Florida lawyer, Broadway lyricist, US diplomat, poet, journalist, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) executive, grade school principal, and university professor, James Weldon Johnson was born James William Johnson on 17 June 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the oldest son of Helen Louise Dillett, a Bahamian, and James Johnson, a freeman from Virginia. In 1912 he changed his middle name to Weldon, using the pen name James Weldon Johnson for the rest of his writing career. He is best known as the author of the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “Negro National Anthem” as it was familiarly called (composed with his brother John Rosamond Johnson), and the literary works God’s Trombones (1927) and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). The first African American executive member of the NAACP, Johnson also left a lasting legacy of legislative and journalistic endeavors to defend the citizenship and individual rights of African American and African-descended peoples in the New World. On 26 June 1938 Johnson died in a car and train accident in Wiscassett, Maine; he had just turned sixty-seven. Thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral days later in Harlem.
Primary Works by Johnson
Johnson’s scholarly and multilingual backgrounds, as well as his personal experiences of Jim Crow segregation, shaped his political, literary, and nonfiction works. Between 1912 and 1935 Johnson authored an anonymously published novel, extensive editorial journalism for major black and white publications such as the New York Age and the Nation, two substantial prefaces to collections of African American poetry and spirituals, a cultural history of black New York, and an autobiography, which originally contained enough material for two volumes. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Johnson 1912, cited under Prose) traced its unnamed protagonist’s journeys from South to North to Europe and through Jacksonville’s “little Cuba.” Johnson’s detailed historical and sociological account of a black New York broadly extended to world citizenship rights for African Americans in his social history (Johnson 1930, cited under Prose). Translations into English of poems by the Cuban Plácido (Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés) in The Book of American Negro Poetry (Johnson 1931, cited under Anthologies Edited by Johnson) and petitions for just treatment made by Haitians under US occupation (The Nation, 1920) presented New World black culture as Johnson had encountered it as a citizen, a diplomat, an author, and an activist on behalf of the NAACP. Retiring from the NAACP in 1931 at age sixty, Johnson assumed a visiting professorship at New York University Teachers College and an endowed chair created for him at Fisk University in Nashville. While teaching, Johnson wrote his autobiography, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (Johnson 1933, cited under Prose; not to be confused with his earlier fictional work, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), and the overtly political nonfiction work Negro Americans, What Now? (Johnson 1934, cited under Prose), his plea for African Americans’ continued investment in integration as the means to civil rights.
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