He is widely regarded as 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”.
James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and diplomat, was heavily involved in editing the first anthropology of African-American poetry in English, the book of American Negro Poetry, which became the standard resource for teaching both English and African-American studies.
According to James Weldon Johnson’s website, 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.
He was also the first African-American poet to incorporate the voice of black folk preachers into verse. This can be traced back to a collection of folk sermons published in 1927 as God’s Trombones.
Johnson was also a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance campaigns, lending his selfless knowledge and service as executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871. His mother had a significant impact on his life perspective and influence in music and literature, laying the groundwork for his great achievement. In 1894, he graduated from Atlanta University and returned to his hometown of Jacksonville to teach at the Stanton elementary school for black students. When he took over as principal, he expanded the school to include a high school.