Biography of James Weldon Johnson

jwjohnsonJames Weldon Johnson was an early civil rights activist, a leader of the NAACP, and a leading figure in the creation and development of the Harlem Renaissance.


Born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was a civil rights activist, writer, composer, politician, educator and lawyer, as well as one of the leading figures in the creation and development of the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson worked as a principal in a grammar school, founded a newspaper, The Daily American, and became the first African American to pass the Florida Bar. His published works include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and God’s Trombones (1927). Johnson died on June 26, 1938, in Wiscasset, Maine.

Early Life and Career

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871, the son of a freeborn Virginian father and a Bahamian mother, and was raised without a sense of limitations amid a society focused on segregating African Americans. After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson was hired as a principal in a grammar school. While serving in this position, in 1895, he founded The Daily American newspaper. In 1897, Johnson became the first African American to pass the bar exam in Florida.

Not long after, in 1900, James and his brother, John, wrote the song « Lift Every Voice and Sing, » which would later become the official anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (The Johnson brothers would go on to write more than 200 songs for the Broadway musical stage.) Johnson then moved to New York and studied literature at Columbia University, where he met other African-American artists.

NAACP Career and Published Works

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed James Weldon Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Upon his return in 1914, Johnson became involved with the NAACP, and by 1920, was serving as chief executive of the organization. Also during this period, he became known as one of the leading figures in the creation and development of the African-American artistic community known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson published hundreds of stories and poems during his lifetime. He also produced works such as God’s Trombones (1927), a collection that celebrates the African-American experience in the rural South and elsewhere, and the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)—making him the first black-American author to treat Harlem and Atlanta as subjects in fiction. Based, in part, on Johnson’s own life, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was published anonymously in 1912, but did not attract attention until Johnson re-issued it under his own name in 1927.

Later Years and Legacy

After retiring from the NAACP in 1930, Johnson devoted the rest of his life to writing. In 1934, he became the first African-American professor at New York University.

Johnson died in a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938, at the age of 67. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem.

Biography of Langston Hughes

hughes_langston_lgLangston Hughes wrote from 1926 to 1967. In that time he wrote more than 60 books, including poems, novels, short stories, plays, children’s poetry, musicals, operas, and autobiographies. He was the first African American to support himself as a writer, and he wrote from his own experience.

Langston Hughes, whose full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes, was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was the only son of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston. His parents divorced when he was young and his father moved to Mexico. Because his mother traveled a lot to find work and was often absent, his grandmother raised Hughes until he was 12. His childhood was lonely and he often occupied himself with books. It was Hughes’s grandmother, a great storyteller, who transferred to him her love of literature and the importance of becoming educated.
In 1914 he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her new husband. It was here that he started writing poetry he wrote his first poem in the eighth grade. A year later the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. Despite all the moving around, Hughes was a good student and excelled in his studies. He was also good looking and popular with the other students, during his senior year at Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, he was voted class poet and editor of the yearbook.
After high school, Hughes traveled in Mexico, Europe, and Africa sometimes by working on freighters. By 1924 he had settled in Harlem, New York, and was an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that focused on literature, music, theater, art, and politics. One of his favorite pastimes was to sit in clubs and listen to the blues as he wrote his poetry.Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York, NY.