Black History Month 2024: Recognizing James Weldon Johnson

February 21, 2024 | by Wong Fleming

In continuation of Black History Month, we also recognize James Weldon Johnson—a multifaceted figure, who was an author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and pivotal civil rights activist. Aligned with this year’s theme of “African Americans and the Arts”, Johnson encouraged Black Americans to produce outstanding literature and art which affirm their intellectual and creative capabilities and inspire change. Much like his peers during the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson recognized that the law and the arts were intertwined, each serving as a vessel for societal transformation.

As he once said, “You are young, gifted, and Black. We must begin to tell our young, There’s a world waiting for you, Yours is the quest that’s just begun.”

Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson, taught at Stanton elementary school after graduating from Atlanta University in 1894. Later becoming principal, he expanded the school to include high school, studied law, and became the first Black man admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction in 1898. While juggling dual careers in education and law, Johnson still found time to write poetry and songs, including the renowned “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” know as The Black National Anthem. James Weldon Johnson served as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP from 1920 to 1930, and he was a key influencer of the Harlem Renaissance, contributing poems, novels, and anthologies. His achievements extended to diplomatic roles, being appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. Notably, he organized the Silent March of 1917 against lynching during his NAACP tenure, later becoming a pioneering professor at New York University after his impactful career in civil rights.

In celebrating James Weldon Johnson, we honor not only his contributions to the legal profession but also his impactful artistic pursuits. Through his many roles, he exemplified and reminded us that the pursuit of justice can be fortified by the eloquence of art.