Board of Directors, 1920–1929
James Weldon Johnson would have been considered a successful man had he remained the principal of Stanton School in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Destiny led him, however, to become the first African American to pass the Florida bar exam and to win international acclaim as a lyricist, poet, novelist, diplomat, and champion of human rights.
When Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP in 1916, the organization lacked the power that comes from substantial and active memberships. Nevertheless, the Association had made great strides in its nine-year existence by effectively using agitation through mass meetings, as well as through newspapers, journals, and other print media. It was increasingly apparent that the NAACP faced an irrefutable increase in relentless race prejudice and discrimination. The board of directors understood that the organization would wither on the vine unless it made more inroads into the black community, and this meant more branches. By now, only 70 branches had been formed and most of them were quiescent and in the North, with a total membership of 9,000. The NAACP's meager yearly income was $14,000, a portion of which came from shriveling black membership dues.1
Chairman of the Board J. E. Spingarn set out to find the person who could turn the membership problem around. Reading James Weldon Johnson's New York Age column, Spingarn was so impressed by Johnson's well-crafted editorials and intellectual acumen that he convinced the board to hire him as field secretary and organizer.
In the fall of 1916 when Johnson joined the staff, he and W. E. B. Du Bois were the only two African Americans in administrative positions in the NAACP's Fifth Avenue offices. Roy Freeman Nash, a white progressive who had headed a North Carolina NAACP branch, was now secretary. Dedicated board members such as brothers Joel and Arthur Spingarn, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Mary White Ovington volunteered their time to the daily administrative tasks of the organization.