Thursday, February 11, 2021

James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938)


James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938)

I love February. One of my favorite components of this very special month is that it is also Black History Month. There is so much to be known about the extraordinary lives and achievements of many  African American citizens in this country...accomplishments that have been "kept under wraps" for generations. During this month, we seem to "peel back" the "ignored" element that has prevented  celebrations of our American tapestry for decades. Finally, we can all say, "WOW!" 

James Weldon Johnson (writer, poet, novelist, professor at NYU [1934] and Fisk University [1931-1938]), activist, lawyer, diplomat) was one of the extraordinary African Americans who has finally gained respect and recognition in our current society, due primarily to his artistic efforts (poetry, writing). He was born in Jacksonville, Florida to a Bahamian mother and African American father. His mother was a musician and a public school educator who taught James and his brother John Rosamond Johnson. 

James Weldon Johnson enrolled at 16 years of age in Clark College (Atlanta) that eventually became Clark Atlanta University. In 1891, he taught descendants of slaves in rural Georgia, and the experience opened his eyes to the plight of the African American citizen in some sections of the United States.

In 1897, he was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era, and one judge was none-too-happy about it, walking out of the examination. Such an insult to a man's achievement and dignity!

As a writer, he penned "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the poem that was eventually set to music by his brother who studied at New England Conservatory. The poem was written to honor educator Booker T. Washington, and the first recitation of this now famous poem occurred in Jacksonville in 1900, with 500 school children speaking it in unison to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1906, James Weldon Johnson became a school principal in Jacksonville, where he was paid less than half the salary of his white colleagues. One major contribution during his principalship was that of adding 9th and 10th grades to the school where he was assigned.

Not long after his experience as a principal ended, both he and his brother moved to New York City, where they worked as song writers. In 1910, he met and married Grace Nail, and the duo worked together as screenwriters.

In 1920, he became a civil rights activist and the first African American chosen as Executive Secretary of the NAACP, where he served for 10 years.

In 1930, Johnson was awarded the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University, and he held the chair until his death in 1938 in an auto accident.

James Weldon Johnson Home - Fisk University

Because of James Weldon Johnson's gifts of creativity and scholarship, we have been blessed to have many of his artistic works among us, inspiring all races to be better humans. He has given us lofty ideals that are our greatest hopes for our futures. We are grateful to James Weldon Johnson for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "God's Trombones," and another poem that will receive special focus in my next blog entry..."The Gift to Sing."

I love James Weldon Johnson's work, and I love that he found music to be essential to his "soul health."  He found it helpful to have music in his do I...and particularly so these days, as we navigate a society where many health considerations have required that our musical activities be limited. "The Gift to Sing" is a firm reality these days, and many have spent countless hours trying to develop some way that choral music may continue in our lives. We continue on, as we try to find the very best ways to embrace the arts as healthy components of a well-rounded society, knowing that the art of choral singing might possibly be forever changed. 

Yet, through it all, James Weldon Johnson gives us hope. If he could sing through all the inequities of his life, certainly we can hang on as we navigate Covid-19 and Post Covid-19 waters. See? I'm already hopeful...looking beyond the flood. Enjoy today! Sing!