Saturday, June 17, 2017

Birthday: "And God stepped out on space, And He looked around and said, 'I’m lonely— I’ll make me a world.'”

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Writer, lawyer, diplomat, composer, activist

Strivers, the Johnsons were. His grandfather was the first black man elected to the legislative council of the Bahamas, in 1833. James grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, then graduated from what is now Clark Atlanta University in 1894.

He went home and took up teaching, reaching the principalship of a black grade school at 35- and at half the salary of his white peers across town. In 1897 he was admitted to practice law in Florida, though an examining committee convened to find a way to flunk him strove hard and failed; one committee member left the room to avoid seeing him sworn in.

Having been active in Theodore Roosevelt’s election campaign of 1904 (until 1932, the GOP was considered the political home of African-Americans), Johnson was named American consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. When President Taft assumed office in 1909, he prompted Johnson to consul general in Nicaragua. He proved a nimble diplomat in the days of America’s banana republics and gunboat diplomacy in Central America; when things were quiet, he had plenty of time to pursue his interest in writing.

With Woodrow Wilson’s election as president in 1913, and subsequent re-segregation of the civil and diplomatic services, Johnson and his brother moved to New York. They fell in with the nascent Harlem Renaissance arts movement.He published a well-received collection of poetry, and a novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

The Johnson Brothers became popular songwriters for the sheet music industry and Broadway, and even managed to produce a musical they wrote. He collected spirituals for what became a major anthology of African-American music, and penned the lyrics for “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with words by his brother; the song became an immediate civil rights anthem and remains one a century later.

Johnson got active in the NAACP, and rose quickly in the ranks. In 1917, to protest the epidemic of lynching in the South, he organized a silent protest march of ten thousand people down New York’s Fifth Avenue. Three years later, he came the organization’s first executive director, and spent ten years building hundreds of new chapters and leading the first legal challenges in the half-century effort to undo Jim Crow.

Johnson’s 1922 anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, was hailed as a scholarly landmark 1922; by 1927 he was so famous as an author and magazine writer the re-issue of his novel carried his name as author (he published it anonymously in its first edition).

Fisk University created a chair in creative writing for him in 1930;  he also held a visiting professorship at New York University: the first African-American on its faculty. At the peak of his powers, he died on vacation with his wife in Maine in 1938, when a train struck their car.

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