James William Johnson (who became James Weldon Johnson in 1913) and John Rosamond Johnson were the two surviving children of headwaiter and minister James Johnson and Helen Louise Dillet Johnson. Johnson’s mother was a musician and was the first African American female to teach in a Florida public grammar school, the Edwin M. Stanton School, where she taught her son. Because there was no local high school for African Americans, the young Johnson enrolled in Atlanta University’s preparatory school in 1887. By 1894, he had a B.A. from Atlanta University, had toured with a male quartet, was the principal at Stanton School, and was studying law. After passing the bar, he practiced law part-time (1898-1901).
At Stanton, Johnson developed a set of courses that allowed the school’s African American students to earn a high school education. In 1895, he started The Daily American, Jacksonville’s—and possibly the United States’—first daily African American newspaper. His “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written in 1900, became nationally known.
Johnson moved to New York after a fire destroyed the Stanton School in 1901. With his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and Robert Cole, a performer, producer, and composer, Johnson wrote more than two hundred songs. He studied at Columbia (1903-1906), earned an M.A. from Atlanta University, and completed a European theatrical tour. The two brothers campaigned for Theodore Roosevelt and wrote his...
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