A native of my own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was the son of an educator, who would later become an educator in his own right, in addition to being a diplomat, poet, novelist, lyricist, and civil rights activist. At only 24, Johnson became a high school principal and founded a newspaper, before being the first black person to pass the Florida bar exam. Soon, he collaborated with his brother, musician John Rosamond Johnson (who happened to be the musical director at the church I grew up in, decades prior, of course), on several theater projects, and penned the amazing lyrics of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which I had learned at least by age six).
These ten li’l high school jitterbugs better sang! (‘Specially the last verse at 2:45).
Tired of the racist buffoonery of popular music at the time (hmmm…so nothing’s changed?), Johnson left that industry, entered Columbia University, and in 1906, was named U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. After being transferred to Nicaragua, where he wrote his impactful novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, he left the foreign service (they weren’t trying to hook a brother up with a decent post back in 1913), settled in New York, became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920, published three anthologies on Negro poetry and spirituals, a collection of poetry, and his own true autobiography. Sadly, he was killed at the age of 67, when a train hit his car in 1938. Still, Johnson is remembered by the students of the various schools that bear his name (my brother went to the one in J-ville) and by the millions of black Americans who get teary-eyed at the last lines of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
In belated honor of Black History Month, Fly Brother salutes fellow Duvalian, Renaissance Man, and Fly Original, James Weldon Johnson. May I be half as prolific as he.