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Johnson, James Weldon
James Weldon Johnson (née James William Johnson in Jacksonville,
Florida on 17 June 1871) was the son of a headwaiter and a schoolteacher, the first female black public school teacher in
Florida. His parents had come from Nassau, Bahamas. He graduated from school in
Jacksonville, then went to Nassau to stay with relatives and then to New York.
He moved to Atlanta where he earned an A.B. degree in 1894. Foe two summers
while in college , he taught in Hampton, Georgia, getting his first real glimpse
of life as experienced by rural, working-class blacks. After Atlanta
University, he returned to Jacksonville and became principal where his mother
taught. As principal he added the ninth and tenth grades.
Johnson was not content to be just a school principal. He founded the newspaper, the Daily
American in 1895 but had to close it eight months later. He studied law and
passed the Florida bar exam, the first black person to do so. He joined his
younger brother, John Rosamond, who graduated from the New England
Conservatory of Music in 1897, in writing the lyrics to songs while his brother
wrote the music. Their most famous work was "Lift Every Voice and
commonly called the Negro National Anthem. In 1902, the two brothers moved to
New York to form a song writing partnership with Bob Cole. Then he moved to New York, where their
partnership with Cole proved very successful. In 1903, he began taking graduate courses at Columbia University.
In 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt, a liberal, was president, he was appointed to
the consulship at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he assumed the same post
in Corinto, Nicaragua. The next year, he married the daughter of a prosperous
real estate developer from New York. He played an important role in the success
of the United States military intervention in 1912. That same year, he published The Autobiography of an
Ex-Coloured Man, a novel which he disguised as a factual story and on which
he did not put his name. His diplomatic career was going nowhere so he resigned
in 1913 and moved back to Jacksonville
In 1914, he moved to New York and pursued a literary
career. He was an editorial writer for the New York Age. In 1917, Fifty Years and Other Poems.
He wrote The Book of American
Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), The Second Book of Negro Spirituals
(1926), God's Trombones: Seven Negro
Sermons in Verse (1927), Black Manhattan (1930), Along This Way (1933), and Negro Americans, What Now?
(1934). He was a strong advocate of civil rights and racial integration, having
become a field secretary for the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and general secretary of the NAACP in 1920.
His life was cut short when a train struck his car on June
26, 1938 near his summer home in Wiscasset, Maine.
His death was a tragic loss for the United States.