State to Honor Jacksonville Native Son James Weldon Johnson's Work Celebrated

By Patton, Charlie | The Florida Times Union, June 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

State to Honor Jacksonville Native Son James Weldon Johnson's Work Celebrated


Patton, Charlie, The Florida Times Union


When Jacksonville's native son James Weldon Johnson is inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame Saturday, the surprise will be that it took so long.

The ceremony at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, which will be attended by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, comes eight years after Stephen Caldwell Wright of Seminole Community College first nominated Johnson.

"They just didn't know who he was," said Wright, who credits Carolyn Williams, a history professor at the University of North Florida, and Sharon Coon, of Jacksonville's Tots 'N' Teens Theatre, with spearheading the efforts to reacquaint people with Johnson.

"There are people who really just don't know much about James Weldon Johnson," Williams said.

But that's not for lack of accomplishment. "I really am convinced that he is probably the most distinguished person that Florida has ever produced," Williams said.

Johnson had a breathtaking range of accomplishments. Born on June 17, 1871, he became, before the turn of the century, a newspaper publisher, the first black man ever admitted to the Florida Bar and the principal of Stanton School, which under his leadership expanded to include high school.

Having already begun writing lyrics for songs composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson moved to New York in 1901. Together with Bob Cole, they conquered the world of musical theater. The Johnson brothers collaborated on more than 200 songs. One was Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, composed for the celebration of Lincoln's birthday in 1900. Adopted by the NAACP as the organization's official song, it has become known as the African-American national anthem.

From 1906 to 1913, Johnson served as consul, first to Venezuela, then to Nicaragua. Then from 1916 to 1920 he served as NAACP field secretary and from 1920 to 1930 as NAACP national secretary. From 1930 until his death in 1938, he taught literature at Fisk University.

He edited four books and wrote seven, among them The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), a novel; God's Trombones (1927), epic poetry; Black Manhattan (1930), a sociological study; and Along the Way (1933), an autobiography.

"A diplomat, a poet, a teacher, an administrator, a lawyer, composer, novelist, editor, a fighter for the rights of his people and the rights of all, he played a major part in the historic developments of his span of life," said New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, eulogizing Johnson. "His many-faceted genius produced a variety of fine things."

Wright is more concise in his analysis of Johnson's accomplishments: "Native son and royal citizen."

Williams said she hopes this week's ceremonies can be the start of an annual festival along the lines of the festival in Eatonville that honors novelist Zora Neale Hurston.

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