Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was
encouraged by his mother to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He
attended Atlanta University, with the hope that the education he received
there could be used to further the interests of African Americans. After
graduating, he took a job as a high school principal in Jacksonville.
In 1900, he wrote the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on the
occasion of Lincoln's birthday; the song was immensely popular in the
black community, and became known as the "Negro National Anthem."
Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to work with his brother Rosamond, a
composer; after attaining some success as a songwriter for Broadway, he decided in 1906
to take a job as a U.S. Consul to Venezuela. While employed by the
diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in The Century
Magazine and The Independent.
In 1912, Johnson anonymously published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a
life of material comfort in the white world. The book explores the issue of
racial identity in the twentieth century, a common theme for the writers of the
With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to
work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer
for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. He
edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, 1922), a major contribution to
the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry God's
Trombones (Viking, 1927) was influenced by his impressions of the rural South,
drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this
trip that ignited his interest in the African American folk tradition.
James Weldon Johnson died in 1938.