On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson, writer of the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” (then called the Negro National Anthem), was born in Jacksonville, Fla., to James and Helen Johnson.
Coming from a well-educated and cultured family, Johnson was first taught by his schoolteacher mother. She instilled in him a sense of appreciation for English literature and the European tradition in music.
At the young age of 16, the future musician and trailblazer enrolled at Atlanta University and graduated in 1894. He then went on to teach African American students in his hometown. By 23, he had become principal of the same school where his mother taught.
Johnson made strides in education, leading the largest public school in the area, regardless of race. He also improved the system by adding the ninth and tenth grades and several subjects, including algebra, English and bookkeeping.
In 1901, he pursued a career in writing. He and his brother John worked together, composing some 200 songs for Broadway.
After leaving entertainment and education, Johnson became involved with politics and law. In 1897, he became the first Black person to be admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction.
He worked for the NAACP and as United States consul in a foreign nation. While working for the civil rights organization, Johnson was able to bring attention to the racial ills plaguing America.
Johnson published several literary works and contributed to the transformation of America’s racist laws and policies. He died in 1938 near his summer home in Wiscasset, Me., when his car was hit by a train.
His legacy lives on through his words and songs of wisdom.
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