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Back to Athem Lyrics

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON [1871-1938]

James Weldon Johnson is an African who was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, to James Johnson and Helen Louise Dillet, who had moved from the Bahamas. His maternal grandfather, Stephen Dillet, was the first black man to sit in the House of Assembly of the Bahamas in 1833 where he served for thirty years.

Dillet, Johnson's grandfather, had been born in Haiti to an African woman and Etienne Dillet, a French Army Officer. During the revolution in Haiti in 1802, the child Stephen was put, along with his mother, aboard a vessel headed for Cuba. However, the boat was captured by a British privateer and brought to the Bahamas [Nassau]. As an anecdote of interest: the oldest house in the Bahamas still standing today, Balcony House, belonged to Stephen Dillet.

In Florida, Johnson grew up to become a versatile man who embraced many fields: novelist, diplomat, ball player, publisher, poet, lawyer, and civil rights activist. In 1901 he composed a song to commemorate the birthday of American Civil War leader Abraham Lincoln. His brother John Rosamond Johnson wrote the music for "Lift Every Voice". The song became popular among Africans and in spite of Weldon's objections, they kept on referring to it as the Negro Anthem.

It became popular in the Caribbean and in Africa in the early part of the 20th century where it was sung in African congregations and as a rallying cry for political leaders in Africa. The spiritual conceptions of "Lift Every Voice" inspired African leaders to use its' modified passages, or other similar texts associated with spiritualism, to craft anthems for newly independent African states.



"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was not the only song on which the brothers collaborated. In 1899 the two spent the summer in New York City, where they sold their first popular song, "Louisiana Lize." In 1902 they left Jacksonville to join Bob Cole, a young songwriter they had met early on in New York, in the quickly successful Broadway songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Brothers. Over the next few years Johnson was largely responsible for the lyrics of such hit songs as "Nobody's Lookin' but de Owl and de Moon" (1901), "Under the Bamboo Tree" (1902), "My Castle on the Nile", and "Congo Love Song" (1903).

He was the first black admitted to the Florida Bar through examination in state court. He also founded a black daily newspaper in Duval County. Through the intervention of Booker Washington, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. consul in Venezuela in 1906. He later held the same position in Nicaragua. A year later he returned to the United States for a brief stay in New York City, where he married Grace Nail.

Weldon and Rosamond
Weldon Johnson joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1917. He worked as field secretary, largely responsible for establishing local branches throughout the South and for increasing overall membership from 10,000 to 44,000 by the end of 1918. In 1920 Johnson became the NAACP's first African-American secretary (its chief operating officer), a position he held throughout the 1920s.

He was a leader in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, a significant literary and artistic movement. His life illustrated that African-Americans could embrace their past and traditions while succeeding in a diverse culture. The times in which Weldon Johnson lived are important in the growth of the Pan African movement. His contemporaries include Marcus Garvey, WEB Du Bois, Blaise Diagne, Muhumuza wa Nyabingi, and John Chilembwe (one of the most remarkable links between African America and the anti-colonial movement in Africa, and father of the Malawian resistence).    

Johnson, personally suffered the humiliations of being African in his time. Johnson, in the early 1900s, described his encounter with a posse of ten militiamen with orders to capture "a Negro accompanying a white woman" in a Jacksonville, Florida, park. Unknown to the soldiers, Johnson's companion was an African woman with fair skin. The soldiers beat him and tore his clothes with cries of, "Kill the damned nigger! Kill the black son of a bitch!" Johnson states that if he had turned his back, lowered his eyes, or taken one step in retreat, he would have been a dead man.     
    
It was Johnson's great hope that the contributions of younger writers would do for African Americans, "what [John Millington] Synge did for the Irish," namely utilizing folk materials to "express the racial spirit of Negroes from within, rather than [through] symbols from without. . . ."

In 1931 Johnson stepped down as secretary of the NAACP (though he remained on the association's board of directors) to become a professor at Fisk University and at New York University. For the remainder of his life he spent the winter and spring terms in Nashville teaching creative writing and classes in American and African-American literature. The rest of the year the Johnsons largely spent in New York City. He remained active as a writer, publishing Along This Way, his autobiography, in 1933 and Negro Americans, What Now?, a work of social criticism, a year later. He died at 67 in 1938 in an automobile-train accident in Wiscasset, Maine.

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 Today's Date: May 30, 2017
 On the Policy Front
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