This Day In History: June 17th
James Weldon Johnson balanced many titles ranging from musical composer to Executive Secretary of the NAACP. If you have heard “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, then you have heard the work of Johnson.
He was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. Despite growing up in the segregated South, Johnson attended Atlanta University and began a career in teaching following his graduation. While working as a teacher he took up new interests and published The Daily American newspaper in addition to studying law. He balanced his careers and became the first African-American admitted to the Florida Bar after the Reconstruction Era.
During this time, Johnson teamed up with his brother John, to compose “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900. The following year, he moved to New York and began connecting with African American artists and community leaders. Through networking, he became treasurer for the Colored Republican Club and was later appointed United States consul in Venezuela by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. He also served as consul in Nicaragua.
After working as a diplomat Johnson became an active member of the NAACP and advanced to field secretary in 1916. By 1920, he was the organization’s executive secretary and campaigned against lynching, segregation and voter disenfranchisement. He held this position for a decade before leaving to teach creative writing at Fisk University.
Johnson kept his love of composing and writing throughout his career changes. The Johnson brothers composed more than 200 songs for Broadway. In 1912, he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which told the story of a biracial man living through Reconstruction. The book was published anonymously and did not gain public attention until Johnson re-published it under his name in 1927. During the same year, he published the poetry collection, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Johnson rose to popularity as a main voice in the Harlem Renaissance. He encouraged the creation of quality literature and art as a way to show African-American’s intellectual equality to their white counterparts.
In 1934, Johnson became the first African-American professor at New York University. He continued writing and dedicated the remainder of his career to the craft. James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938. His funeral was attended by more than 2,000 people and “Lift Every Voice And Sing” continues to be a celebrated anthem.