As a child, James W. Johnson was shielded by his parents from the worst aspects of what would come to be called Jim Crow—the daily indignities that occurred when interacting with white people, the exploitative labor arrangements, and the violence. Every Black parent tried to do the same thing; it was one of the ways they fought white supremacy.
James W. Johnson’s Childhood
James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871, and came of age not long after Reconstruction’s collapse. His family was a part of the Black middle class. His mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was a schoolteacher who taught humanities classes at the segregated Edwin M. Stanton School. And his father, James, was the head waiter at a whites-only resort hotel, where the pay was considerably more than a Black man could make as a field hand, sharecropper, or tenant farmer.
Although his parents were not of great means (their middle-class status was based on their occupation rather than their wealth), they earned enough so that Johnson did not have to work as a child. He was able to focus on his education, which he did with great enthusiasm. He shared his mother’s love of music and developed his own fondness for poetry and literature, interests cultivated by teachers at Stanton, where he matriculated through the eighth grade.
Attending Stanton for as long as he did was another privilege afforded to him because his parents were not beholden to a white landowner. Most Black youth had to leave school much earlier, usually by the fourth grade, to work in the fields with family. But the eighth grade was also as far as Johnson could go in Jacksonville, as the city did not provide a high school for African Americans. ‘Separate but equal’ often meant accommodations for whites and nothing for Blacks.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Johnson’s parents were deeply committed to his education. So, after he completed the eighth grade, they sent him to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend high school at Atlanta University, a Black college founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association.
It was not uncommon for Black colleges to offer high school courses to meet the needs of Black communities that didn’t have secondary schools. These high school programs also served to increase overall enrollment at Black colleges and universities by preparing students to handle the rigors of college education. Atlanta University awarded its first bachelor’s degree in the late 1870s and soon emerged as an important source of teachers and librarians for Black public schools across the South.
When Johnson completed his high school coursework, he immediately enrolled at Atlanta University. This marked the beginning of a formative period for the young scholar, who utilized this time to hone his skills as a poet, novelist, and songwriter. This was also a crucial moment for Johnson because he spent these years coming to understand the color line beyond his narrow personal experiences.
Fighting White Supremacy
As a student at Atlanta University, Johnson discussed and debated race and racism in American society with his teachers and classmates. He also learned a great deal about the color line from teaching in rural Georgia during the summer. White supremacy was no longer an abstraction, something that happened ‘out there’. He saw it now as a powerful force impacting the lives of every African American. He also saw the pressing need to fight white supremacy in the classroom, as well as in the courtroom.
Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. With his bachelor’s degree in hand, he returned to Jacksonville. Determined to make a difference through classroom instruction, he accepted a job as principal of Stanton, and successfully led a desperately needed high school expansion.
Driven to foment change through the courtroom, Johnson studied law at night, and in 1898 was admitted to the Florida Bar, the first African American to be so recognized since Reconstruction. And somehow, between practicing law and running a school, he managed to publish a newspaper, the Daily American, which focused on Black affairs. He also found time to pursue his twin artistic passions: poetry and songwriting.
National Anthem of Black America
Johnson’s ability as a poet and songwriter, along with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson’s gift as a composer, were well known and deeply appreciated by the Black community in Jacksonville. This led local leaders to ask Johnson to write a song for a public commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday, which was February 12, 1900—an event that doubled as a celebration of emancipation.
Johnson agreed. He drafted lyrics for the new piece, which his brother set to music. Johnson then taught the song to a choir of 500 local Black schoolchildren, who performed it during the event.
A few months after the celebration, Johnson and his brother left Florida for New York City, where they embarked on a successful career composing songs for musicals on and off Broadway.
After leaving Florida, Johnson and his brother never gave much thought to the piece they had created for Lincoln’s birthday. But the people of Jacksonville never stopped thinking about it. And they never stopped singing it.
Children sang it at school assemblies. Church congregations sang it during Sunday services. And soon, it spread beyond Jacksonville. College students from North Florida introduced it to glee clubs at the schools they attended, like the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, who carried it the world over during their concert fundraising tours.
Within a few years’ time, Johnson’s song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, was being sung in African American communities across the country. It had become the national anthem of Black America.
Common Questions about James W. Johnson
James W. Johnson‘s mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was a schoolteacher who taught humanities classes at the segregated Edwin M. Stanton School. His father, James, was the head waiter at a whites-only resort hotel.
Atlanta University was a Black college founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association. It was an important source of teachers and librarians for Black public schools across the South.
James W. Johnson‘s song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, was written to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday, an event that doubled as a celebration of emancipation. Soon, the song was being sung in African American communities across the country and became the national anthem of Black America.