NAACP History: James Weldon Johnson

Not just an influential and notable novelist, poet, and songwriter, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a lawyer, a United States consul in a foreign nation, and served an important role in combating racism through his position in the NAACP.

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His father was a headwaiter at a hotel and his mother was a teacher at the segregated Stanton School. Johnson grew up in a middle-class home, and his mother encouraged him to pursue an interest in reading and music. Johnson attended Stanton until he entered high school. He attended high school and college at Atlanta University. He received his bachelor’s in 1894.

After college, Johnson pursued several endeavors. He became the principal of Stanton School, and expanded the school to include a high school. He also began studying the law under the instruction of a white attorney. In 1898, he was admitted to the Florida Bar. Johnson continued to serve as principal, but he also began practicing law. While balancing his dual career, Johnson found time to write poetry and songs.

In 1901, Johnson decided to pursue a career in writing. Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, left for New York City to write songs for musicals. They achieved success with the composition of around two hundred songs for Broadway.

While in New York, Johnson also became involved in politics. In 1904, he served as treasurer for the Colored Republican Club. In 1906, the Roosevelt Administration appointed Johnson as the United States consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, he served as consul in Corinto, Nicaragua until 1913. In addition to his service as consul, during this time, Johnson anonymously published his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912).

After leaving the public sector, in 1916, Johnson accepted the position of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Johnson worked at opening new branches and expanding membership. In 1920, the NAACP appointed him executive secretary. In this position, he was able to bring attention to racism, lynching, and segregation. After ten years of serving as executive secretary, Johnson resigned, and accepted a creative writing teaching position at Fisk University.

Johnson developed his own philosophy on lessening racism in America. While W.E.B. Du Bois advocated intellectual development and Booker T. Washington advocated industrial training to combat racism, Johnson believed that it was important for blacks to produce great literature and art. By doing so, Johnson held that blacks could demonstrate their intellectual equality and advance their placement in America.

Throughout Johnson’s life, he was able to continue writing. Johnson wrote several notable works before and during the Harlem Renaissance. One of his more popular works was, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). In 1927, he also reissued his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, in his name.

Johnson died in 1938, after a train hit the car he was in.