Popular as a songwriter, masterly as a writer, riveting as a public
speaker, and forceful as a proponent of civil rights, James Weldon
Johnson was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, where in 1897 he had become the first
black to be admitted to the Florida bar, Johnson moved to New York
City around the turn of the century. With his brother J. Rosamond
and the musician Bob Cole, "Those Ebony Offenbachs" wrote
light operas, Broadway shows, and popular songs such as "Lift
Every Voice and Sing." The latter tune—sometimes dubbed
the "black national anthem"—testifies to the trials,
the triumphs, and the underlying patriotism of African Americans.
Blacks may have lacked economic power, Johnson reasoned, but they
could still use art and literature to improve the conditions of their
daily lives. He therefore set out to promote African-American culture.
His 1922 anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, enabled
new voices to resound on the literary scene; indeed, some cite it
as a catalyst for the Harlem Renaissance.
Johnson's friendship with white philanthropists such as Joel Spingarn
helped him finance several black talents. He persuaded the Julius
Rosenwald Fund to start up an African-American fellowship program;
over the next 25 years, it provided nearly 1,000 fellowships. As executive
secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) from 1916 to 1930, Johnson excelled at raising funds
for that organization's critical work.
Johnson's writing weaved its way into the fabric of Harlem society.
Selections from his 1927 book of poetry, God's Trombones: Seven
Negro Sermons in Verse, were often recited at social gatherings
such as the parties thrown by Carl Van Vechten. In 1930 his Black
Manhattan—the first history of African Americans in Harlem—spotlighted
the emergence of black artists in the city. A year later, Johnson
left the city he had helped define for a creative writing professorship
at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.