‘Lo and behold’: State, locals, Floridians honor James Weldon Johnson in Wiscasset

Mon, 10/25/2021 - 8:45am

    Post-women’s movement when a young Kim Andersson discovered men made more money, and post-Soviet Union when she was in the Ukraine and saw bread lines, the future Wiscasset selectman realized it takes more than law to bring change.

    Her voice broke in Wiscasset Community Center’s Senior Center Saturday, as she said she didn’t think a lot about racial issues until the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder. “Well-intentioned white people like me were sitting at home, not working” and she was sanitizing her family’s Cheerios boxes, she said. Then Floyd was murdered, and the world stopped, she said. “It was just too unbelievable. And it’s been a reconciliation ever since, and I think it’s something we all need to continue to work on ... of bringing change.”

    Long before the murder, the black lives matter movement started, she recalled. “And I’m late to that party, but I’m here now.”

    Saturday’s event honored and brainstormed how to honor James Weldon Johnson. Speakers called him a great man for helping turn National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from a scattered to a national organization, being the first black admitted to the Florida bar; a U.S. diplomat, Broadway songwriter, and writer of the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which the National Football League played last season and people were quoting Saturday. Johnson died in a car-train crash in downtown Wiscasset in 1938.

    Why memorialize Johnson in a Maine town when a $4 million park is planned in his native Jacksonville, Florida? In an interview and moments later to the crowd, retired Florida state senator Tony Hill, Jacksonville born and raised, said some places say Thomas Jefferson was there, or Lincoln spent the night there. “Well, James Weldon Johnson died here.”

    Across the table from him during the joint interview, Jacksonville’s Tony Allegretti called himself a zealot of Johnson. The public arts consultant said Johnson was the best at all he did, from international diplomacy to translating opera, and quietly helping black students attend school past eighth grade in Florida, and did all of it in the Jim Crow era.  

    Noting Friends of Wiscasset Village’s Lucia Droby and others, Hill said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have started a movement in Wiscasset, a movement that will not stop ... Lo and behold,” like the NFL’s use of Johnson’s song last year and some teams’ use of it again this year. But the movement is still “sort of in the shadows” and he looked forward to “continuing the dialogue,” he said. At Hill’s request, attendees stood and said in unison, “relationships.” Those make things happen, he said.

    State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D – 40, said a conversation with Hill led to her bill that passed into law in June. And with that law, she said the whitest state in the nation, a state Johnson visited often, will, from 2022 on, have a James Weldon Johnson Day every June 17. Ross, Maine’s first black woman elected to the legislature, told the gathering she was honored to “walk this journey with you to recognize and honor and carry the legacy forward of the brilliant, talented, gifted patriot, one of America’s best heroes.” 

    Andersson said she supported Droby’s proposal to selectmen last spring for a plaque downtown and an observance for the man Andersson said she was ashamed she had not known about, but his legacy needs to be “woven into the fabric of our daily debt,” Andersson said to applause. She recalled being dismayed at some people’s reaction to the idea of honoring Johnson in town. But as an educator she said she knows it was an opportunity. “You meet ignorance and hate with education and love.”

    They can work together “to build something truly beautiful” toward the goal of racial justice Johnson dedicated himself to, Maine’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Maine Tribal Populations’ director of community-engaged research, Meadow Dibble, said. In a phone interview after the event ended with a visit to, and blessing of, the crash site, Dibble said attendees reached no decisions on how Johnson will be honored in Wiscasset, but saw the group has within it the enthusiasm and momentum to serve as a core group to help preserve and continue Johnson’s legacy.

    Droby said when she got funding promises this year from private donors, she realized she could do better than calling a plaque company to order one. She has talked with area stone sculptor Andreas Von Huene about doing a piece, she said.

    Dibble plans an online survey to gather more thoughts from Saturday’s attendees, including who else to add to local and state efforts.

    Woolwich Selectman and State Rep. Allison Hepler, D – 53, who testified for Ross’s bill, told Wiscasset Newspaper that night, she learned a lot that day, as a history teacher and local official wanting to see “how a small town treats this issue of commemoration.” She left “impressed with the seriousness of the task, the talent and quality of the attendees, and the organization of the day. I look forward to getting involved and helping out in whatever way I can.”