A memorial to James Weldon Johnson in Wiscasset, where the poet-civil rights advocate died, took about nine years of off and on talks among clergy, townspeople, local and state officials and others. And on a sunny morning June 17, his birthday and Maine’s first annual James Weldon Johnson Day, at St. Philip’s Church and the town common, with singing, poetry, handholding and amens, it came to pass.
Sen. Craig Hickman, D - Winthrop and the first black lawmaker to serve in both Maine’s Senate and House, wasn’t sure he could make it Friday. He had farming to do, planting to feed his family and community. But that morning, he checked his messages and saw, the observance was at St. Philip’s, the same name as the first church he went to when he was growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He said he called fellow lawmaker Rachel Talbot Ross of the James Weldon Johnson Day Task Force and told her, “I guess this is God’s way of telling me ‘Get yourself together, put those watermelon seeds in the soil ... and get yourself down to the most beautiful town in Maine and observe the man who wrote music that I sing to (and) dance to,” and who, as Hickman does, wrote poetry.
Hickman added, Maine is still the whitest state in the nation, but its people do not care what you look like or who you love. “They only care about what you do. And so when we come together and do good things, which this here today is, everyone in Maine ... is represented ...”
Ross said she was proud Gov. Janet Mills signed the proclamation for James Weldon Johnson Day without hesitation. It states in part, Johnson “found solace from the endless struggle for racial justice and his extraordinarily active life as an artist among the pines and rocky shores of Maine.”
Ross also thanked former Florida lawmaker Tony Hill, back in town from Johnson’s native Florida, for his efforts to have Maine be a part of continuing Johnson’s legacy. And she thanked Wiscasset’s Lucia Droby, who worked to memorialize Johnson in town, and Selectman Dusty Jones, who built the memorial, a bench Ross said was in a perfect spot, on the common near a church, library and courthouse, for a man whose faith grounded him and who wrote poetry, hymns and other works and worked for justice and democracy.
Speakers noted Johnson led National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for years, was the first black man admitted to the Florida bar and, with brother J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Speakers called it the black national anthem, and a choir and attendees sang it as Sean Fleming played piano. Selectman, task force member and planned pianist Terry Heller could not attend due to an injury.
As people filed in earlier, Fleming played “Amazing Grace.” St. Philip’s Priest in Charge Tom Junkert told Wiscasset Newspaper the church’s getting to host the event was wonderful and, he hoped, a new tradition.
In a pew sat Bronda Niese, wife of retired Episcopal priest Al Niese, an early proponent of a marker in Wiscasset for Johnson. The Brunswick woman told Wiscasset Newspaper her husband could not attend, but that he said he was happy he lived to see the day Johnson was being honored locally.
Several attendees were participants in Maine Humanities Council’s recent book discussions on some of Johnson’s works. Ross noted James Ford, who led the book sessions with Leigh Anne Keichline, had on a shirt that read “Juneteenth,” the June 19 federal holiday commemorating slavery’s end; “Freedom Day,” she said.
Ross asked people to make Johnson’s great-niece K. Melanie Edwards feel she was home here, and to welcome her home. Edwards said later, she appreciated that. She told the gathering in the morning program, seeing how remarkable Wiscasset is, she can understand why, even though he had a lovely, stream-fed property in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, her grand uncle chose to rejuvenate and recreate around here. The causes that moved him and a friend he visited in Maine, E. George Payne, “are with us now as they were then.”
Edwards said honoring Johnson honors the issues he wrote and spoke eloquently on, and championed tirelessly. “Through you and this day, James Weldon Johnson will live forever, and I thank you.”
After the program, attendees walked across Route 1 to the common and the new bench. Jones said he made it in 50 waking hours, and put into it all of his feelings after growing up in a “very segregated” Texas town and then, in the Navy, learning he had a lot to learn.
In the church and on the common, Ross told attendees Wiscasset has partners in honoring Johnson and they will return year after year. The spot where the bench sits is a place for everybody, and Johnson was present with them, she said. “While Wiscasset served as a place of a tragic death, it is his life that we have come to honor ...”
The day’s forecast was gray and threatened storms came, after the sunny walk, bench visit and lunch. Jones told Wiscasset Newspaper on the common, he had thought the weather might be good like it was. It seemed right, as though the day called for it, he said.