U.S. Rep. Lawson Wants Jacksonville Recognized As James Weldon Johnson’s Birthplace

Feb 15, 2018

North Florida Democratic Congressman Al Lawson wants Jacksonville to be nationally recognized as the birthplace of Civil Rights activist and songwriter James Weldon Johnson.

Lawson’s bill would designate his home as a national landmark.

“I am pleased to introduce a bill designating James Weldon Johnson’s birthplace as a national landmark and memorialize his legacy as a leader for our community,” Rep. Al Lawson said in a news release. “Johnson contributed integrity, knowledge and dedication to our nation through his life’s work. Since his passing in 1938, he has remained an icon and inspiration not only to the city of Jacksonville, but throughout the United States.”

James Weldon Johnson is a well-known Harlem Renaissance leader. He wrote the lyrics of what’s become known as the black national anthem – “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” performed for the first time, according to PBS, by 500 school children in Jacksonville in celebration of President Lincoln's Birthday in 1900.

That’s because Johnson grew up in the LaVilla neighborhood with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who composed the anthem music. James was also a lawyer, the first black man to be admitted to the Florida Bar since reconstruction, and became the principal of Stanton School, Florida’s first for African Americans.

“Every time the music for ‘Lift E’vry Voice and Sing’ is played, and the audience stands and the words are sung, it evokes a feeling of admiration and respect for the history and strength of our forefathers and mothers,” said Lloyd Washington, president of Jacksonville’s Durkeeville Historical Society. “The designation of the birth site as a National Register Site would validate that African-American history matters every month of the year – and the proof lives at the northwest corner of Jacksonville’s Lee and Houston streets.”

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. He later became a leader within the NAACP, where he challenged the disfranchisement of African Americans, the news release states.

Lawson’s House bill has 19 co-sponsors including Northeast Florida Republican John Rutherford.

At the same time, the Jacksonville City Council this week approved a bill creating a 25-member Civil Rights task force to help celebrate that history.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.