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James Weldon Johnson

(1871 - 1938)

Every time the NAACP sings its national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, it honors a black Republican, James Weldon Johnson. This inspirational song, which was also adopted in the 1940's by millions of black Americans as the Negro National Anthem, was written in 1900 by Johnson in collaboration with his talented musician brother, John Rosamond Johnson, to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

The NAACP itself was founded on President Lincoln's 100th birthday, February 12, 1909, by white Republicans who opposed the racist practices of the Democratic Party and the lynching of blacks by Democrats.

Johnson, who was born and educated in Jacksonville, Florida, served as field secretary for the NAACP in 1916 when he was offered the position by Joel E. Springham after attending the Armenia Conference on racial issues. In 1920, Johnson became the general secretary of the NAACP, the first black man to hold that office. He resigned from his position with the NAACP in 1930 after serving the organization for nearly 15 years.

After Johnson moved to New York in 1902 and became active in the Colored Republican Club of New York, he was appointed to the post of United States Consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. Johnson transferred to a similar post in Corinto, Nicaragua in 1909. His role in helping the United States Marines defeat the rebels when a revolution broke out in Nicaragua in 1912 earned Johnson wide acclaim.

In 1914, after Democrat President Woodrow Wilson from Virginia was elected, Johnson resigned from the U.S. Consular Service because he believed that there would be little opportunities for black Americans in Wilson's administration. President Wilson subsequently dismissed all black American federal officials. During Wilson's presidency, the Democrat-controlled Congress introduced the greatest number of bills proposing racial segregation and discrimination than had ever been introduced before.

The Daily American, the first black American-owned newspaper, was founded by Johnson in 1895. In the newspaper, which lasted for less than a year, Johnson addressed racial injustice, and, in keeping with his Republican values, asserted a self-help philosophy that was shared by Booker T. Washington. He also argued for the merits of racial integration and cooperation in both his newspaper and later literary works. While serving as the principal of Stanton Elementary School in Jacksonville, Johnson studied law under a white lawyer named Thomas A. Ledwith, and, in 1898, became the first black American to pass the Florida bar examination.

Johnson was a songwriter, poet, civil rights leader, and novelist. He was most likely better known for his literary works in the 1920's during the golden era of black culture and writing, known as the Harlem Renaissance, than he was for his leadership of the NAACP. He was a mentor for young writers during that time, including Langston Hughes.

Among Johnson's works is The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, a novel about a black man who passed for white, published anonymously in 1912 and reissued in 1927 under his own name. He wrote his autobiography Along the Way in 1933, but his most celebrated work is The Book of American Negro Poetry published in 1922 that helped define what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. He and his musically talented brother, John, became a successful songwriting team on Broadway with Bob Cole, writing such hit songs as Nobody's Lookin' but de Owl and de Moon in 1901, Under the Bamboo Tree in 1902 and Congo Love Song in 1903.

Although he died tragically in an automobile accident in 1938 while on vacation in Maine, he is remembered for his dedication to serving his fellow human beings and his unfailing integrity.

Information about Johnson's life can be found in his papers in Yale university's Beinecke Library. The Library of Congress also has manuscripts about Johnson, including the NAACP Collection and the Booker T. Washington Papers. A comprehensive biography is James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice by Eugene Levy published in 1973. An essay about Johnson written by Robert E. Fleming at the University of New Mexico and published in the Literary Encyclopedia on January 8, 2001 can be found on the Internet at .
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