Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

James Weldon Johnson

1871-1938 / Poet, novelist, playwright, civil rights leader

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.