Read his poem "The Creation"
Career: Poet, novelist, journalist, song writer, attorney, educator, and diplomat
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871. Both his father James, a resort hotel headwaiter, and his mother Helen Dillet Johnson, a schoolteacher, had lived in the North as free blacks. James and his brother John grew up in cultured and economically secure surroundings that were unusual among Southern black families at the time. Johnson's mother stimulated his early interests in reading, drawing, and music, and he attended the segregated Stanton School, where she taught, until the eighth grade. Since high schools were closed to blacks in Jacksonville, Johnson left home to attend both secondary school and college at Atlanta University, where he took his bachelor's degree in 1894. It was during his college years that he first became aware of the depth of the racial problem in the United States, and Johnson's experience teaching black schoolchildren in a poor district of rural Georgia during two summers left a deep impression on him. The struggles and aspirations of American blacks form a central theme in the thirty or so poems that Johnson wrote as a student.
In 1894 Johnson was appointed a teacher and principal of the Stanton School and expanded the curriculum to include high school-level classes. He also became an active local spokesman on black social and political issues and in 1895 founded the Daily American, the first black-oriented daily newspaper in the United States. During its brief life, the newspaper became a voice against racial injustice and encouraged black advancement through individual effort — a "self-help" position that echoed the more conservative civil rights leadership of the day. Although the newspaper folded the following year, Johnson's ambitious effort attracted the attention of such prominent black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Around this time Johnson also read law with the help of a local white lawyer, and in 1898 he became the first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. Johnson practiced law in Jacksonville for several years in partnership with a former Atlanta University classmate while continuing to serve as the principal of the Stanton School. He also continued to write poetry and discovered a talent for songwriting, which he pursued in collaboration with his brother.
In 1901 the Johnson brothers set out for New York City to seek their fortune writing songs for the musical theater. In five years they composed some two hundred songs for Broadway and other musical productions. During this time Johnson also studied creative writing at Columbia University and became active in Republican party politics, serving as treasurer of New York's Colored Republican Club in 1904. When the national black civil rights leadership split into conservative and radical factions — headed by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, respectively — Johnson backed Washington, who in turn played an important role in getting the Roosevelt Administration to appoint Johnson as United States consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. With few official duties, Johnson was able to devote much of his time to writing poetry. He also completed his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, during his three years in Venezuela.
In 1909 Johnson was promoted to the consular post in Corinto, Nicaragua, a position that proved considerably more demanding than his Venezuelan job and left him little time for writing. In 1910 he took a leave from his duties in order to marry Grace Nail, the daughter of a prosperous New York tavern owner and real estate dealer. His three-year term of service in Nicaragua occurred during a period of intense political turmoil, which culminated in the landing of U.S. troops at Corinto in 1912. In 1913, after returning home from Nicaragua to settle his father's estate, Johnson attempted to secure a more desirable consular position. Failing that, and seeing little future for himself under President Woodrow Wilson's Democratic administration, Johnson resigned from the foreign service and returned to New York to become an editorial writer for the New York Age, the city's oldest and most distinguished black newspaper. The articles Johnson produced over the next ten years tended to be conservative, combining a strong sense of racial pride with a deep-rooted belief that blacks could individually improve their lot by means of self-education and hard work even before discriminatory barriers had been removed.
In the summer of 1916, at the invitation of Joel E. Spingarn and with urging from Du Bois, Johnson attended the important Amenia Conference on racial issues. Shortly afterward, Spingard offered him the position of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had been organized in 1910 by whites and blacks to provide a more militant vehicle for racial protest than Washington offered. Upon acceptance of the position, Johnson proved effective in organizing local branches throughout the country, greatly expanding the membership. After an investigative trip to Haiti, Johnson exposed the abuses of the American occupation there in a series of articles for the Nation magazine in 1920. Later that year he became general secretary of the NAACP. Emphasizing legal action, political pressure, and publicity, Johnson coordinated the most effective movement against racism of the time.
At the end of 1930, fatigued by the stresses of his job and wanting more time to write, Johnson resigned his position and accepted a part-time teaching post in creative writing at Fisk University. This move allowed him to pursue the literary life that had always competed with activism for his time. Johnson's distinguished career was brought to an abrupt end in June, 1938, when a train struck the car in which he was riding as he traveled to his summer home in Maine.
Source: Exploring Poetry Gale.