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This Day in Georgia History

June 17, 1871

James Weldon Johnson Born

African-American lawyer, lyricist, U.S. diplomat, civil rights activist, novelist, poet, and educator James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. He attended Atlanta University, where he wrote over 30 poems while a student. At graduation ceremonies in 1894, Johnson gave the senior address for his graduating class. Three years later, Johnson became the first black admitted to the Florida Bar, though he is even better known for composing what many consider the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in 1899. In the early 1900s, Johnson served as U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 1920, he served as executive secretary of the NAACP, later becoming a writer. In 1930, he became a professor at Fisk University. On his birthday in 1938, while driving in a thunderstorm to his summer home in Maine, Johnson’s car was hit by a train. He died from the injuries on June 26. On Feb. 2, 1988, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 22-cent commemorative stamp honoring Johnson.

For an image of James Weldon Johnson with the Atlanta University Quartet, see the Digital Library of Georgia.