Black History Month Profile: James Weldon Johnson (1831-1938)

First performed publicly in February of 1900, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was composed by brothers James Weldon (text) and J. Rosamand Johnson (music). Originally conceived as a poem to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as a musical work has become a powerful symbol of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Termed “the Black National Anthem” by some, this song also inspired a short-lived sculpture (“The Harp”) commissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and created by Augusta Savage Jefferson. Given its cultural significance, and in honor of Black History Month, here at the Library we thought we would briefly spotlight the poet, educator, and activist behind the poem: James Weldon Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson (1831-1938) was born in Jacksonville, FL and went on to attend Atlanta University. The son of a schoolteacher, he returned to his alma mater Stanton Elementary School as principal. Concurrently, he purused legal studies and became the first African-American to pass the bar exam in the state of Florida. In addition to his significant contribution to the fields of education and law, Johnson was a prolific writer of poems, song texts, and fiction such as The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Active in the political arena as well, in 1920 he was appointed executive secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which ultimately adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song.

For a sampling James Weldon Johnson’s poetry available here at the Library, we recommend checking out:

For more on the artwork inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” consider this book, also available here at the Library:

And for a full list of books authored by James Weldon Johnson and available here at the SCL, check out the following list in the online catalog. Happy reading!

Sources consulted:

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