A predominant figure of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 to a middle class, African American family in the progressive city of Jacksonville, Florida.
One of his most famous writings is the lyric to the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which he wrote in 1900 to commemorate President Lincoln’s birthday. In 1919, the NAACP claimed this song as the Negro national anthem. Now considered the Black National Anthem, it was initially written as a poem. When put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, it became the hymn we now know it by today. Recently, the hymn was sung for the first time at a Superbowl (February, 2023) by African American performer Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Over the course of his life, Johnson accumulated many achievements as an author (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), a statesman in international politics, a leader in the ranks of the NAACP, as the first African American professor at NYU, as the first Black lawyer admitted to the Florida state bar after the Reconstruction era and as a lifelong advocate for civil rights.
He tragically died in a railroad accident in 1938 while on vacation in Maine. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.