James Weldon Johnson, the composer of the "Black National Anthem"

James W. Johnson
Sat, 1871-06-17

James Weldon Johnson was born on this date in 1871. He was an African American composer, lyricist, publisher, lawyer, and educator.

He was born in Jacksonville, FL, and encouraged to study English literature and in the European musical tradition. He attended Atlanta University with a plan to further the interests of Black people through his own education. After graduation, he took a job as a high school principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville. He also was admitted to the Florida Bar after becoming a self-educated lawyer. In 1900, he wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the occasion of Lincoln's birthday--the song which became immensely popular in the Black community and eventually known as the "Negro National Anthem," or Negro National Hymn.

Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to collaborate with his brother John Rosamond Johnson, a composer, and became successful as a songwriter for Broadway, but decided to take a job as U. S. Consul to Venezuela in 1906. While employed by the diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in the Century Magazine and The Independent. In 1912, Johnson published The "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" under a pseudonym, the story of a musician who rejects his Black roots for a life of material comfort in the White world. The novel explores the issue of racial identity in the 20th century, a common theme in the writing of the Harlem Renaissance.

He had a talent for persuading people of differing ideological agendas to work together for a common goal, and in 1920, he became the national organizer for the NAACP. He edited "The Book of American Negro Poetry," in 1922, a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry, "God's Trombones" (1927) was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. This trip ignited his interest in the African-American folk tradition. James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.

ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980
ISBN 0-8351-1283-1

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Person / name: 

Johnson, James Weldon