Since there are so many facets of the history that people of African descent have made in this country, I’ve decided to continue my “Black History 365″ series from my poetry blog here on my AfrocentriqueAZ blog. In honor of National Poetry Month, I’ll be posting a new Black poet every day this month. Every Wednesday for the months after that I will post other Black history figures (I’ll go back to my “first Black” series).
Today’s poet is James Weldon Johnson
From Famous Poets and Poems and Wikipedia:
James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. Johnson is best remembered for his leadership within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he started working in 1917, being chosen as the first black executive secretary of the organization, effectively the operating officer. He served in that position from 1920 to 1930. He was first known for his writing, which includes poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture.
He was the first African-American professor at New York University. Later in life he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.
Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas, and James Johnson. His brother was John Rosamond Johnson, who became a composer. The boys were first educated by their mother (a musician and a public school teacher) before attending Edwin M. Stanton School. His mother imparted to them her great love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. At the age of 16, Johnson enrolled at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college, from which he graduated in 1894. In addition to his bachelor’s degree, he also completed some graduate coursework.
The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment built when Jacksonville was one of Florida’s first winter havens, inspired young James to pursue a professional career. Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust. He knew he was expected to devote himself to helping black people advance. Johnson was a prominent member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
Johnson and his brother Rosamond moved to New York City as young men, joining the Great Migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century. They collaborated on songwriting and achieved some success on Broadway in the early 1900s.
Johnson served in several public capacities over the next 40 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, and civil rights activism. In 1904 he participated in Theodore Roosevelt’s successful presidential campaign. After becoming president, Roosevelt appointed Johnson as United States consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela from 1906 to 1908, and Nicaragua from 1909 to 1913.
In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail, whom he had met in New York City several years earlier while working as a songwriter. A cultured and well-educated New Yorker, Grace Nail Johnson later collaborated with her husband on a screenwriting project.
After his return to New York from Nicaragua, Johnson became increasingly involved in the Harlem Renaissance, a great flourishing of art and writing. He wrote his own poetry and supported work by others, also compiling and publishing anthologies of spirituals and poetry. Owing to his influence and his innovative poetry, Johnson became a leading voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
He became involved in civil rights activism, especially the anti-lynching campaign. Starting as a field secretary, he became one of the most successful officials in the NAACP, which he helped expand by organizing new chapters in the South. During this period, the NAACP was mounting legal challenges to the southern states’ disfranchisement of African Americans.
Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car he was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.