Wiscasset fields request for monument to poet-civil rights leader killed in 1938 car-train crash in town

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 8:15am

    Wiscasset Town Manager Dennis Simmons and Friends of Wiscasset Village members agreed Oct. 8 to look into a possible marker honoring James Weldon Johnson. A 1938 car-train crash downtown killed the Black poet-civil rights activist, according to Wiscasset Newspaper files.

    Simmons said a representative for Florida Congressman Al Lawson, Tony Hill, told him Oct. 2, Johnson’s birth city, Jacksonville, plans to honor Johnson with a monument and a park that would open in 2022. Simmons wrote in an email to Friends’ Terry Heller, “Congressman Lawson and Mr. Hill would like to ... place a monument in the area of the train tracks so that there is a monument at his birthplace and place of death ... I do not object to a low key monument or historical signage that would be in line with what we have. People do travel to visit historical sites, and this could add to the historical significance of the downtown.”

    Simmons and the Friends group agreed taking time would yield the best way, and place, to honor Johnson. Simmons said Hill urged for Wiscasset to install a marker right away. “The more I’ve thought about it, since their park isn’t going to be done until 2022, I’d rather see us push this back until they get at least well into their process ... and (we could) try to coordinate something with the city of Jacksonville,” to dedicate the park and the Wiscasset marker at the same time, Simmons said.

    Lucia Droby said she pictured something subtler than a monument. Simmons concurred. “More along the lines of a plaque, no statue ... but I want it to be something that fits in the downtown, not just another sign that we’ve stuck in the ground somewhere,” he said. He noted the state has a right of way at the tracks; and the area near the tracks already has a cluttered feel, Brad Sevaldson said.

    “I think it’s important to take some time and really find the appropriate spot,” Sevaldson said.

    Droby and Peter Wells also said an event could be planned that could be positive and educational.

    This is not the first time Wiscasset has fielded a request to honor Johnson. In 2013, weeks before the 75th anniversary of Johnson’s death, retired Episcopal priest Al Niese of Woolwich told Wiscasset selectmen four Portland churches wanted to raise money toward a historical marker or plaque that could go somewhere in town, perhaps at Wiscasset Public Library, he said.

    The vehicle Johnson and wife Grace were traveling in collided with a train during a violent rainstorm, Niese said. She survived, Niese said. Wiscasset Newspaper reported selectmen concurred with Niese about Johnson's significance to U.S. history, but were not sure where to memorialize him.

    WPL Director Pam Dunning said in an email response last week, the library never received anything to display from the churches about Johnson.