James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. He was born to a freeborn Virginian man and a Bahamian mother. Despite the racial tensions between Blacks and Whites in the U.S., young James was raised to believe that he could be successful. This way of thinking stuck with him and ultimately enable him to achieve success.
Once he graduated from high school, Johnson began his collegiate career at Atlanta University in Georgia. He entered college in 1889 and graduated with his B.A. in 1894. By 1896, he began studying law, working in Thomas Ledwith’s office in his hometown of Jacksonville.
The Daily American
Once he graduated from college, Johnson began working as the principal at a grammar school. In 1895, he founded his newspaper, The Daily American. His newspaper experienced moderate success but did not last very long. In 1898, Ledwith encouraged him to take the bar exam. He became the first Black person to pass the bar in the state of Florida.
Although he passed the bar exam, Johnson did not practice law. Just two years after passing the bar, he and his brother wrote a song that would make history. In 1900, he and his brother wrote Lift Every Voice and Sing. Their song was adopted as the official anthem for the NAACP and was referred to as the Negro National Anthem.
After making a name for themselves as songwriters, Johnson and his brother set out to New York. There, he studied literature at Columbia University and began selling his songs to Broadway musicals. He and his brother were earning up to $1,200 a year for selling their songs.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt selected Johnson for a diplomatic position. He served as the U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He returned to the U.S. in 1914 and began working with the NAACP. By 1920, he had climbed the ranks and had become the chief executive officer of the organization.
In addition to his activist work with the NAACP, Johnson was also considered a leading figure in the inception of the Harlem Renaissance. He published short-form and long-form stories, poems, collections, and many other forms of writing throughout his literary career.
Fame as a fiction writer came with his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man(1912). With his novel, he became the first author to use Harlem and Atlanta as the settings and subjects in fiction. His fame did not come for another 14 years, however. He originally published his book anonymously in 1912 but then republished it under his name in 1927.
By 1930, Johnson retired from the NAACP and devoted his time to writing. Four years later, he became the first Black professor to teach at New York University. While driving down a road in Wiscasset, Maine, James Weldon Johnson perished in a car accident on June 26, 1938. He was 67 years old.
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