James Weldon Johnson, composer, diplomat, social critic, and civil rights activist, was born of Bahamian immigrant parents in Jacksonville, Florida on June 17, 1871. Instilled with the value of education by his father, James, a waiter, and teacher-mother, Helen, Johnson excelled at the Stanton School in Jacksonville. In 1889 he entered Atlanta University in Georgia, graduating in 1894.
In 1896, Johnson began to study law in Thomas Ledwith’s law office in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1898, Ledwith considered Johnson ready to take the Florida bar exam. After a grueling two hour exam, Johnson was given a pass and admitted to the bar. One examiner expressed his anguish by bolting from the room and stating “Well, I can’t forget he’s a nigger; and I’ll be damned if I’ll stay here to see him admitted.” In 1898, Johnson became one of only a handful of black attorneys in the state.
Johnson, however, did not practice law. Instead he became principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville where he improved the curriculum and added ninth and tenth grades. Johnson also started the first black newspaper, the Daily American, in Jacksonville. With his brother Rosamond, who had been trained at the New England Conservatory of Music in Massachusetts, James W. Johnson’s interests turned to songwriting for Broadway.
Rosamond and James migrated to New York in 1902 and soon were earning over twelve thousand dollars a year by selling their songs to Broadway performers. Upon a return trip to Florida in 1900, the brothers were asked to write a celebratory song in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The product, a poem set to music, became “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” now known as the Negro National Anthem.
In 1906, Johnson became United States consul to Puerto Cabello in Venezuela. While in the foreign service he met his future wife, Grace Nail, daughter of the influential black New York city real estate speculator, John E. Nail. The couple’s first year was spent in Corinto, Nicaragua, Johnson’s new diplomatic post.