He is considered a man of many “firsts” in American history. In 1912, he became the first African-American author that featured Harlem and Atlanta as themes in his genre-crossing novel “The Autobiography of an Ex-coloured Man”.
Civil Rights activist and diplomat James Weldon Johnson was actively involved in editing the first anthropology of African-American poetry in English, the book of American Negro Poetry, which became the go-to resource material for teaching both English and African-American studies.
Johnson and his brother and fellow composer J. Rosamond Johnson compiled and edited The Book of Negro Spirituals in 1925, the first of a two-volume collection of Black sacred songs, according to James Weldon Johnson’s website.
Another feat he chalked was becoming the first African-American poet to incorporate the voice of black folk preachers to verse. This can be traced to a collection of folk sermons compiled in a book titled God’s Trombones in 1927.
Johnson was also one of the leading personalities in the Harlem reawakening campaigns, offering his selfless knowledge and service as the executive secretary of the National Association of Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
He was born in 1871 in Jacksonville in Florida. His mother had a lot of influence on his perspective of life and influence in music and literature, a foundation that spurred him on to his great feat. He graduated from Atlanta University in 1894 and headed to his home city of Jacksonville to teach at the Stanton elementary school for black pupils. When he took over the helm of affairs as the school’s principal, he expanded the school to include a high school.
While in that position, he began his legal education in 1898 and became the first black person to gain admission into the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. Despite his challenging schedules, Johnson made time to write poetry and songs. In 1906, he was appointed to the office of the United States Consul in Venezuela by President Theodore Roosevelt. He took up this position after serving as the treasurer for the Coloured Republican Club. He later moved to Nicaragua to serve as a consul there.
He continued writing poems and music even in these demanding roles. This was the period he published The Autobiography of an Ex-coloured Man highlighting the journey of a young biracial man living in the post-reconstruction era.
In 1916, he retired from his diplomatic roles and joined the civil rights movement as a field secretary for NAACP. His tenure saw an expansion of NAACP’s new branches and an increase in its membership. He was vociferous in the passage of the federal anti-lynching bill and spoke passionately about it at the 1919 National Conference on lynching. He rose through the ranks and later became NAACP executive secretary in 1920. He strongly championed campaigns against racial segregation and voter disenfranchisement in the South.
He served at NAACP for over 10 years and headed to lecture at Fisk University in Nashville where he taught creative writing. He devoted a significant part of his career to championing racial equality and racism, one that was at variance with the position of civil rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
Johnson passed away in 1938 at the age of 67 in a bizarre car accident while vacationing in Maine.