Poet. Novelist. Songwriter. Journalist. Activist. Diplomat.
These are the many lives of James Weldon Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. He was raised in a middle-class home: his mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was headwaiter at a luxury hotel. When he was only 16 years old, Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Upon graduation, he studied law and became the first Black person admitted to the Florida Bar. Had he achieved nothing more, he would have already lived a notable life. But Johnson was just getting started.

Around the turn of the century, Johnson moved to New York City with his brother, Rosemond, to pursue careers as songwriters for the Broadway stage—a near impossible dream at a time when Broadway lived up in more ways than one to its nickname, “The Great White Way.”

Together, the Johnson brothers wrote a string of hit songs, including “Under the Bamboo Tree,” which Judy Garland performed on screen decades later in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The brothers’ most famous song never graced a Broadway stage. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” now commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem, is now part of the fabric of Black American life, a staple of church gatherings, family reunions, and everywhere Black people gather to reflect on our past, present, and future.

Johnson’s fame as a songwriter caught the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, then a candidate for the presidency, so Johnson composed campaign songs for Roosevelt. Upon his election, Roosevelt appointed Johnson as U.S. consul to Venezuela (1906-1909) and later Nicaragua (1909-1912). During his time abroad, Johnson wrote a novel, which he published anonymously in 1912 under the title The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Despite its title, the book is not a memoir but a work of imaginative fiction. It is a riveting first-person narrative of passing, with Johnson’s character living on both sides of the color line. Johnson wrote the novel in the first-person—an homage to the slave narratives of the 19th century and a harbinger of classic works of 20th century Black fiction to follow, most notably Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Even as his literary career took off, Johnson increasingly directed his energies toward activism.

In 1916, he became field organizer (and later executive secretary) for the newly-formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In this capacity, he oversaw the expansion of the organization from 68 regional branches in 1917 to 310 by 1920.

He helped lobby Congress for anti-lynching legislation. He organized peaceful protests against white racist violence, including a silent protest parade in 1917 of some 10,000 Black Americans along New York’s 5th Avenue. And throughout the decades he continued to write and to teach.

With the possible exception of W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson stands as the most impactful and versatile Black leader of the 20th century. His memory lives on in words and song, and in his lasting example of social courage and human rights advocacy.

— Written by Adam Bradley

Photo credit: Public domain