Described by knowledgeable observers as "the leading Negro citizen of his time,” James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was indeed one of the most remarkable. His accomplishments could, and indeed did fill books, his autobiography, “Along This Way,” being one of them. He also was a well-known political figure, serving as U.S. Consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela in 1905 under President Roosevelt; three years later he was transferred to Corintino, Nicaragua. He was also a U. S. consul to Haiti.
Lawyer, poet, musical comedy composer, diplomatic official, author, editor and educator, he was principal of the largest Negro public school in Florida (The Stanton School in Jacksonville).
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he edited the first Negro daily newspaper in the United States and was reportedly the first Black baseball pitcher to throw a curve ball. He became the first Black Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920.
His brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, brought him to New York in 1899 and together they became a hit on Broadway, writing such songs as Since You Went Away, The Maiden With The Dreamy Byes and My Castle On The Nile.
But none of these gained the popularity and enduring public acceptance as the Negro National Hymn, which Johnson wrote in 1900. It soon became known as “The Black National Anthem.” In his autobiography, “Along This Way,” he tells how he came to write the song:
"A group of young men decided to hold on February 12 a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. I was put down for an address, which I began preparing; but I wanted to do something else also. My thoughts began buzzing around a central idea of writing a poem on Lincoln, but I couldn't net them. So I gave up the project as beyond me; at any rate beyond me to carry out in so short a time; and my poem on Lincoln is still to be written. My central idea, however, took on another form.
"I got my first line: ‘Lift every voice and sing.’ Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines: ‘Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.’
“The spirit of the poem had taken hold of me. I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond.
"In composing the two other stanzas I did not use pen and paper. While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating.
"As I worked through the opening and middle lines of the last stanza, I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet's ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment – that sense of serene joy – which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.
"Later it was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and is now quite generally used throughout the country as the 'Negro National Hymn'."
Johnson went on to become a powerful Black leader. Under his direction, as Secretary of the NAACP (1920-1928), NAACP branches grew phenomenally, from 67 to 372. In 1928, for reasons of failing health, he resigned (the annual total for lynching were down to 11) and accepted the Chair of Creative Writing at Fisk University.
He died June 26.1938 at 67 when his automobile was struck by a train on a grade crossing in Wiscasset, Maine.
He says in his autobiography: "Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being the part creator of this song (Negro National Hymn). I am always thrilled when I hear it sung by Negro children.”