Documents detail James Weldon Johnson’s death at Wiscasset RR tracks

Mon, 12/13/2021 - 8:45am

    Efforts to honor James Weldon Johnson in Wiscasset and elsewhere in Maine have raised old documents surrounding the poet, playwright, civil rights advocate, professor and consul’s death on the railroad tracks downtown. Meanwhile, the state’s work continues toward Maine’s first annual James Weldon Johnson Day next June 17.

    The documents include letters between Maine Central Railroad (MCR) and Maine Public Utilities Commission, and Associated Press reports about the 1938 crash that killed Johnson, 67, and put wife Grace in a Damariscotta hospital. The documents state the couple left their summer home in Penobscot Bay’s Dark Harbor and she was driving the Ford coup when it struck the side of an engine at 6:23 a.m. Sunday, June 26 on Main Street, Wiscasset.

    That Sunday train, traveling about 8 mph, was an extra passenger run from Portland to Rockland; the schedule ran Wednesdays through Saturdays; the documents state, “It was raining hard but (there was) no fog to interfere with vision,” and the train came through Wiscasset the same time it did on the scheduled runs; bystanders pulled James Weldon Johnson from the wreckage; he died moments later; Wiscasset Dr. Charles DiPerri arrived seven minutes after the crash and tended to Grace Johnson, 40, who, like her husband, had skull and leg injuries. She survived.

    MCR General Manager J.W. Smith told the PUC via letter July 6, 1938, the train’s whistle “properly sounded for this crossing, last blast carried onto crossing. Engine bell was ringing and Automatic Crossing Signal was operating complete. It is of the wig-wag type.”

    A July 18, 1938 PUC order stated, “After investigation and careful consideration of the evidence ... nothing appears that requires any recommendations or future action (by) the Commission ...”

    In a Nov. 29 email response to questions, Maine State Archivist Kate McBrien explained the accident report has been at Maine State Archives “for a number of years and has been available, if someone knew to look for it ... When I attended the visioning session in Wiscasset in October, I heard that the accident report had not been found and I thought it might be at the ... Archives. The following week, I asked staff Archivists to look for the report, which they found. The State Archives digitally imaged the full report and posted it onto the Digital Maine website, to share it widely,” McBrien continued.

    “Since the visioning session on how to best commemorate the death of Mr. Johnson had recently been reported in the news, we thought it would be helpful to share the report’s existence through a press release, to let as many people as possible know of its contents and try to help in the research and understanding of the events surrounding his unfortunate death. I hope the report is useful.”

    Wiscasset Newspaper asked McBrien, some other participants in the event at Wiscasset Community Center, and a descendant of Johnson, if anything in the documents was new to them. McBrien said she would like to see, and is searching for, the record of a court case Grace Johnson filed against MCR. “Ultimately, she lost that case I’m told. But I would hope the court record might provide additional information about the accident itself,” McBrien said.

    James Weldon Johnson’s great niece Melanie Edwards told Wiscasset Newspaper, “I was surprised to find (from the documents) that the Johnsons were at a home in Penobscot Bay not in the home of E. George Payne whom I had heard that they were visiting. I surmise that the car in which they traveled belonged to Fisk University (where James Weldon Johnson was a professor) since the car was registered in Tennessee not New York. I did not know that there was no obvious reason for the crash like heavy fog or malfunctioning equipment either at the rail crossing or in the car.

    “History is interesting,” Edwards added.

    In a recent phone interview, Maine Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations’ director of community-engaged research, Meadow Dibble, said McBrien’s and the Archives’ effort with the accident documents was another encouraging sign the event at WCC “seems to have prompted a reaction and an interest in knowing more about the circumstances of James Weldon Johnson’s death.”

    Dibble sent Wiscasset Newspaper a letter the commission got late last month from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chair Leon W. Russell. Russell thanked Wiscasset, its selectmen and residents “for recognizing this modern hero.” Johnson was the first American of African descent to serve as NAACP’s executive secretary, the letter noted.

    Dec. 7, Dibble announced the commission is seeking to fill the task force for the June 17 observance. For more on the task force and the commission, email