Sankofa Studies

James Weldon Johnson – Beyond “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

February 4, 2020
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was an author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. 

At the age of 16, Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University, and graduated in 1894. In addition to his studies for the bachelor’s degree, he also completed some graduate coursework. Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s. 

While working as a teacher, Johnson also read the law to prepare for the bar. In 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era ended. He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar. In order to be accepted, Johnson had a two-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room. 

In 1906 Johnson was appointed by the Roosevelt Administration as consul of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua. During his stay at Corinto, a rebellion erupted against President Adolfo Diaz. Johnson proved an effective diplomat in such times of strain. 

He was involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He had a broad appreciation for black artists, musicians and writers, and worked to heighten awareness in the wider society of their creativity. In 1922, he published a landmark anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, with a “Preface” that celebrated the power of black expressive culture. He compiled and edited the anthology The Book of American Negro Spirituals, which was published in 1925. 

In 1920 Johnson was chosen as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, effectively the operating officer position. He served in this role through 1930. He lobbied for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921, which was passed easily by the House, but repeatedly defeated by the white Southern bloc in the Senate.  

In 1934 he also was appointed as the first African-American professor at New York University, where he taught several classes in literature and culture. 


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