From the University of South Carolina:
Born James William Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida, on 17 June 1871 — he changed his middle name to Weldon in 1913 — the future teacher, poet, songwriter, and civil rights activist was the son of a headwaiter and the first female black public school teacher in Florida, both of whom had roots in Nassau, Bahamas. The second of three children, Johnson’s interests in reading and music were encouraged by his parents. After graduating from the school where his mother taught, Johnson spent time with relatives in Nassau and in New York before continuing with his education.
While attending Atlanta University, from which he earned his A.B. in 1894, Johnson taught for two summers in rural Hampton, Georgia. There he experienced life among poor African Americans, from which he had been largely sheltered during his middle-class upbringing in Jacksonville. During the summer before his senior year he attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where, on “Colored People’s Day,” he listened to a speech by Frederick Douglass and heard poems read by Paul Laurence Dunbar, with whom he soon became friends.
Educator and Songwriter
After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson became the principal of the Jacksonville school where his mother had taught, improving education there by adding ninth and tenth grades. In 1895 he founded a newspaper, the Daily American, designed to educate Jacksonville’s adult black community, but problems with finances forced it to shut down after only eight months. While still serving as a public school principal, Johnson studied law and became the first African American to pass the bar exam in Florida.
When Johnson’s younger brother, John Rosamond, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1897, the two began collaborating on a musical theater. Though there attempts to get their comic opera “Tolosa” produced in New York in 1899 were unsuccessful, Johnson’s experiences there excited his creative energies. He soon began writing lyrics, for which his brother composed music, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which subsequently came to be known as the “Negro National Anthem.” The Johnson brothers soon teamed up with Bob Cole to write songs. In 1902, Johnson resigned his post as principal in Jacksonville, and the two brothers moved to New York, where their partnership with Cole proved very successful.
Diplomat and Poet
Johnson, though, became dissatisfied with the racial stereotypes propagated by popular music and, in 1903, began taking graduate courses at Columbia University to expand his literary horizons. In 1906 he secured a consulship at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, the position allowing him time to write poetry and work on a novel. In 1909 he was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua, where a year later he married Grace Nail, the daughter of prosperous real estate developer from New York. While still in Nicaragua he finished his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which was published anonymously in 1912 in hopes that readers might think it a factual story.
Unable to secure a more desirable diplomatic post, Johnson resigned his consulship in 1913 and returned to the U.S. After a year in Jacksonville, he moved back to New York to become an editorial writer for the New York Age, in which capacity he was an ardent champion for equal rights. In 1917 he published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, the title poem having received considerable praise when it had first appeared in the New York Times.
Activist and Anthologist
In 1916, Joel E. Spingarn offered Johnson the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. An effective organizer, Johnson became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920. Though his duties prevented him from writing as much as he would have liked, Johnson found time to assemble three ground-breaking anthologies: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).
Johnson’s second collection of poetry, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927 and marks his last significant creative endeavor. His administrative duties for the NAACP were proving strenuous, and, after taking a leave of absence in 1929, he resigned as general secretary in 1930. During his final years he wrote a history of black life in New York that focuses on Harlem Renaissance entitled Black Manhattan (1930), his truly autobiographical Along This Way(1933), and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book that argues for integration as the only viable solution to America’s racial problems.
Johnson died on 26 June 1938 near his summer home in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car in which he was driving was struck by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.
His most famous poem, of course, is the Negro National Anthem: