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James Weldon Johnson - Jacksonville's Forgotten Son

James Weldon Johnson, 1902
James Weldon Johnson, 1902
Source: Published in Twentieth Century Negro Literature (anthology), Photographer unknown (from Wikimedia Commons)

James Weldon Johnson - Rennaissance man, poet, musician, author, publisher, educator, lawyer, activist and diplomat was also a Jacksonville native. The lyricist who penned the words for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (later adopted as the negro national anthem) was born June 17, 1871 during the height of post-Civil War Reconstruction Florida to free-born, middle class parents James William Johnson, Sr. and Helen Dillet. His father had moved the family to the U.S. five years earlier when a hurricane destroyed his business interests in the Bahamas. Finding work as a headwaiter at the St. James Hotel in Jacksonville, he and his wife, who taught at the Stanton School (considered one of the best black primary schools in the country at the time) raised their son to be bold and dream big.

James William Johnson, Jr. completed his high school preparatory courses in 1890 and continued his undergraduate studies at Atlanta University, where he studied English literature. His experiences as a freshman in college were to shape many of the poetic images he would employ in his masterwork, "God's Trombones", published in 1927. After graduation, James passed on a chance to study medicine at Harvard in order to return to Jacksonville and his alma mater: Stanton. Under James Johnson's  guidance, Stanton became Florida’s first negro high school (and is still the state’s oldest continually-operating high school). He was just twenty-one years old.

In May, 1895 along with M.J. Christopher, Johnson inaugurated The Daily American, the first negro daily ever published. A year later, Johnson began to study law while still acting as Stanton's principal. A white attorney, Thomas Ledwith, encouraged him to take the exam for certification by the bar which resulted in Johnson being the first black lawyer to be admitted in Duval County and later, to the Florida Supreme Court.

James Johnson became intriqued with the Harlem Renaissance during the early 1900's, relocating there in 1901 after nearly being lynched by a mob in Hemming Park for his outspokenness. During his years there, James met Grace Nail, an accomplished artist in her own right. By 1910, they were married, their wedding on February 3rd coinciding with Johnson's second appointment as United States Consul in South America. For reasons of his own, it was in 1913 that he changed his middle name to "Weldon".

In the fall of 1916, Johnson was commissioned as the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Four years later, as head of the organization, Johnson went to Haiti to investigate the conditions of the five-year U.S. occupation. He published a series of articles in the media that detailed his ideas for reforming the economic and social status of Haiti. Johnson also revealed the brutality of Americans towards the native Haitians in their own country. This experience lead him to use his now-considerable influence to initiate the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921.

By 1930, James Johnson was ready to return to the south and resigned from the NAACP to accept the Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. As if prodded by the hand of fate, he wrote his autobiography "Along This Way" at Nashville and it was published in 1933. Five years later, he was suddenly gone, the result of a train/auto collision in Wiscasset, Maine, not far from his summer cottage.

His friends wanted to erect a monument to him in Harlem. Grace eventually determined it would be more fitting to create a "living" testimonial: the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Today the collection is housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. James Weldon Johnson lived in Jacksonville for 30 years, but you will not find a statue anywhere. His legacy is in the work he did and the work we have left to accomplish.

Learn more :

James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers

Official Site of Grace and James Weldon Johnson


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