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Johnson, James Weldon


Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Fla. on June 17, 1871. 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. After Atlanta University, Johnson returned to Jacksonville, Fla., where he became principal of that city’s Colored High School. At the same time he studied law, and in 1897 Johnson became the first black admitted to the Florida Bar. After practicing law for a short time, Johnson returned to Atlanta University to obtain a master’s degree in 1903. From 1900 to 1906, he and his brother collaborated in composing over 200 songs, including what many consider the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt named Johnson U.S. consul to Venezuela, a post he followed that of consul to Nicaragua. In 1917, Johnson obtained a doctorate from Talladega College in Alabama, followed by a doctorate from Howard University in 1923. In 1916, he began working with the NAACP, and in 1920 became the organization’s executive secretary. In this role for the next ten years, Johnson was an ardent fighter for federal anti-lynching laws. Throughout this and the two earlier decades, the multi-talented Johnson also wrote poetry and prose, including The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and God’s Trombones. In 1930, he became a professor of creative literature at Fisk University. On his birthday in 1938, Johnson was driving to his summer home in Maine. During a thunderstorm, his car was hit by a train at an intersection in Wiscasset, Maine. Johnson died from the injuries on June 26.