Johnson served as United States counsel to Venezuela from 1906 to 1912 and during this time published his first novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Johnson published the novel anonymously, but rereleased the novel in 1927 using his name.
Returning to the United States, Johnson became an editorial writer for the African-American newspaper, New York Age. Through his current affairs column, Johnson developed arguments for an end to racism and inequality.
In 1916, Johnson became field secretary for the NAACP. In this position, he organized mass demonstrations against racism and violence. He also increased the NAACP’s membership rolls in southern states, an action that would set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement decades later. Johnson retired from his daily duties with the NAACP in 1930, but remained an active member of the organization.
Throughout his career as a diplomat, journalist and civil rights activist, Johnson continued to use his creativity to explore various themes in African-American culture. In 1917, for instance, he published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems. In 1927, he published God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Next, Johnson turned to nonfiction in 1930 with the publication of Black Manhattan, a history of African-American life in New York. Finally, he published his autobiography, Along This Way, in 1933. The autobiography was the first personal narrative written by an African-American reviewed in The New York Times.