Who is James Weldon Johnson? Creator of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing', the poem known as the Black national anthem

Johnson was an author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, and civil rights activist, known widely for his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)


                            Who is James Weldon Johnson? Creator of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing', the poem known as the Black national anthem
James Weldon Johnson (Getty Images)

As worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism continued, one song central to the Black community and cited as the 'Black national anthem' became the focus of attention. Titled 'Lift Every Voice and Sing', it is a song that many African-Americans know it from being performed at churches, schools, and even graduation ceremonies. It was written during a pivotal moment, just as the Jim Crow laws were replacing slavery, and Black Americans were left with an identity crisis. The song, initially penned as a poem, was written by James Weldon Johnson and later set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1899. 

Johnson, born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida, was an author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, civil rights activist, and anthologist of the Black culture. He was known widely for his leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1917. He trained in music as a young child under his mother's guidance, who was a school teacher and graduated from Atlanta University with AB (1894) and MA (1904) degrees, respectively. He later attended Columbia University. For several years, he served as the principal of a Black high school, Stanton School, in Jacksonville. At the same time, he read law, was admitted to the Florida bar in 1897, and began practicing not long after. It was during this time that he and his brother, a composer, would write songs, including 'Lift Every Voice and Sing'. 

Walter Damrosh congratulates Roland Hayes after he had awarded Hayes with the Sprigarn medal. Standing in the center is James W Johnson (Getty Images)

In 1901, the brothers traveled to New York where they made significant musical contributions for Broadway. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him US consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he was made consul in Corinto, Nicaragua, and he served there until 1914. He began writing a novel, 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man' while teaching creative literature at Fisk University, a historically Black university. The book was published anonymously in 1912 and barely attracted any readers until it was re-published with his name in 1927.

Johnson became increasingly involved in civil rights activism, particularly in the campaign to pass the federal Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, for Southern States did not prosecute perpetrators. In 1919, he was a speaker at the National Conference on Lynching. In 1920, he became the first African-American to be chosen as the executive secretary of the NAACP, effectively the operating officer for the next ten years. During this time, he helped increase membership and extended the scope of the organization's reach by organizing numerous chapters in the South. Johnson established himself as a writer, honing his career during the Harlem Renaissance, where his poems, novels, and anthologies spotlighting black culture rose to prominence. Simultaneously, he had been trying to help young black authors to get published.

Sheet music for 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1917, he wrote 'Fifty Years and Other Poems', and thereafter, collaborations with his brother on his pioneering anthology 'Book of American Negro Poetry' (1922) and books of 'American Negro Spirituals (1925, 1926). His critically-acclaimed work 'God's Trombones', written in 1927, was a collection of black dialect sermons in verse which comprised 'The Creation' and 'Go Down Death'. The foreword in Johnson's anthologies contain some of the most insightful assessments ever written on black contributions to American culture. In 1933, he wrote 'Along This Way', his autobiography. He became the first African-American professor at New York University in 1934, where he taught numerous classes in literature and culture. 

'Lift Every Voice and Sing', became the Black national anthem, because of two defining moments: In 1905, reformist, Booker T Washington championed it, and in 1919, it became the official song of faith and freedom for the NAACP. It was performed for the first time in by a choir 500 school children of the segregated Stanton School in Johnson's hometown on February 12, 1900, celebrating Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Johnson died on June 26, 1938, while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine. The car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His funeral was held in Harlem and was attended by more than 2,000 people. 


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