Remembering James Weldon Johnson, A Man Of Many FIRSTS With A Tragic Ending

James Weldon Johnson


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.

Despite his busy schedule, Johnson found time to write poetry and songs. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the position of United States Consul in Venezuela in 1906. He was appointed to this position after serving as treasurer of the Coloured Republican Club. He later relocated to Nicaragua to work as a consul.

Even while performing in these demanding roles, he continued to write poetry and music. During this time, he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which chronicled the life of a young biracial man in the post-reconstruction era.

In 1916, he resigned from his diplomatic positions and became a field secretary for the NAACP. During his tenure, the NAACP established new branches and increased its membership. He was a vocal supporter of the federal anti-lynching legislation and spoke passionately about it at the 1919 National Conference on Lynching. In 1920, he rose through the ranks to become NAACP executive secretary. He was an outspoken opponent of racial segregation and voter suppression in the South.

He worked for the NAACP for over ten years before moving on to lecture at Fisk University in Nashville, where he taught creative writing. He devoted a significant portion of his career to fighting for racial equality and racism, which contradicted the views of civil rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

Johnson died in a bizarre car accident while on vacation in Maine in 1938, at the age of 67.



Written by How Africa News

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