Shared from the 5/3/2020 The Florida Times-Union eEdition


Historic site is ready for its closeup

The Johnson brothers — James Weldon and John Rosamond — are central characters in the rich history of LaVilla, and now a city park on the land where they were raised is taking shape.

The Vestcor Companies have pledged $100,000 for the Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park at the corner of Houston and Lee streets. It is part of Vestcor’s plan to build 88 market-rate townhomes on 3.4 acres at Adams, Johnson, Lee and Forsyth streets.


The Edward Waters College Triple Threat marching band played “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 2017 at the home site of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson in LaVilla at the corner of Lee and Houston streets. [FLORIDA TIMES-UNION]


This is a rendering of a structure based on a shotgun house at the historic site of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson in LaVilla. [PROVIDED BY STEVE WELLS ART AND DESIGN]

The park is on land where the Johnson brothers grew up in a house their father built. The park was dedicated in 2015 and three historical markers, donated by the Durkeeville Historical Society, were erected, honoring each brother and the famous song they wrote. But the park has remained undeveloped.

Steve Wells, a graphic designer, had developed renderings with a plaza featuring the Johnson brothers at a piano. A nearby shelter is in the style of the shot-gun houses popular in LaVilla.

Daryl Joseph, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, said the city has hired the African-American landscape architect Walter Hood, who is known for landscapes that highlight the African-American experience, to design the park that will be built by ACON Construction of Jacksonville.

“This is a small site,” Joseph said. “We want as much impact as possible.”

Joseph said the cost of the project will not be known until Hood completes the design, but that, in addition to the Vestcor funds, the city will make up the difference with tax dollars and grants.

The park will be on the LaVilla Heritage Trail, which includes the Ritz Theatre and Museum, Clara White Mission, the old Stanton school and the Genovars Hall. Vestcor also donated $100,000 to the trail.

Joseph said the park also will be linked to the Emerald Trail, being developed by GroundWork Jacksonville.

The city hopes to have the design finished by this spring, with construction to start by the end of the year and be completed in spring 2021. The construction of the park will have to be coordinated with Vestcor, which is building townhomes on the adjacent property, Joseph said.

The Jessie Ball duPont Fund has been involved in the process, assisting with some funding and facilitation. President Mari Kuraishi said she thinks the park will play an important role in creating a sense of place in LaVilla and highlight an important part of the city’s history and diversity.

A seven-year process

Lloyd Washington, president of the Durkeeville Historical Society, began talking up the idea for the park about seven years ago. The city had pinpointed the block where the Johnson brothers had lived. Washington approached then-City Councilman Warren Jones.

“I am a Rosamond Johnson fan. I’m a cheerleader for him,” Washington said. “I asked Warren, ‘What does it take to get a park for Rosamond Johnson?’ And he said, ‘Well what about James Weldon?’ And I said, ‘Well, what about him. What would it take to get a park?”

Jones had meetings, and brought together Daryl Joseph head of city Parks and Recreation and Tony Allegretti, who was the head of the Cultural Council.

Everyone agreed it was a great idea, but the toughest decision was the name.

Washington wanted to name it for Rosamond, others for James Weldon. They decided on Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, the Johnson brothers’ best known work.

Washington hopes the park will help keep alive the legacy of the Johnson brothers. “A lot of people don’t know the Johnsons were born here,” he said.

Growing up in LaVilla

Their father, James Johnson, the headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, built the wood frame house where James Weldon, born in 1871, and John Rosamond, born in 1872, grew up. Their mother, Helen Louise Dillet, a musician and educator, made sure the boys were exposed to the arts.

Cuban cigar makers who worked at the Swisher factory rented rooms at the house, and the boys picked up Spanish, which served them well later in life.

The brothers were educated at Stanton Central Grammar School. Because Jacksonville did not have a high school for black students, James Weldon moved to Atlanta to attend high school and later Atlanta University; Rosamond, who learned to play piano at the age of 4, attended the New England Conservatory and later studied in London.

The brothers returned for a time to Jacksonville where they taught at Stanton. When James Weldon became principal 1906, he expanded the school, making it Jacksonville’s black high school. The building, which was constructed in 1917 after Johnson’s tenure, closed in 1971 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

While teaching at Stanton, James Weldon read the law and passed a two-hour oral examination in 1898 to become the first African-American admitted to The Florida Bar. He practiced law with a partner besides his teaching responsibilities.

He also wrote poetry. In 1899, James Weldon was invited to speak at the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Instead of a speech, the Johnson brothers wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” based on a poem by James Weldon.

“Lift every voice and sing, till Earth and Heaven ring,

“Ring with the harmonies of liberty …

“Let us march on till victory is won.”

About 500 children from Stanton performed the song for the first time in February 1900, a moment James Weldon later wrote brought him to tears.

Although the Johnson brothers are most famous for “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” they went on to storied careers that would be outstanding today, but astounding for two black men in the early 20th century.

They were both figures in the Harlem Renaissance in New York, composing over 200 songs with Bob Cole.

John Rosamond spent his career in show business composing, sometimes with his brother, Broadway operettas for black audiences and musicals for white audiences. He toured the vaudeville circuit and with his own ensembles, the Harlem Rounders and the Inimitable Five. He wrote music for the London theater and was director of the New York Music School Settlement for Colored.

The brothers also collected and published traditional African-American songs, “The Book of American Negro Spirituals” (1925) and “The Second Book of Negro Spirituals” (1926).

The brothers also were active in civil rights. James Weldon was the first black executive secretary of the NAACP (1920-30), and in that capacity campaigned for legislation outlawing lynching and challenging Jim Crow laws.


James Weldon Johnson (left) and his brother John Rosamond Johnson, songwriters of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” [ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF DAVIS]

James Weldon continued to teach and was the first African-American professor hired at New York University and later was professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.

He published a novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” and an autobiography, “Along This Way.”

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua.

James Weldon died in a car accident in 1938. John Rosamond lived until 1954.

A tourist destination

Joseph said he hopes that the park will help create a sense of neighborhood in LaVilla, where a number of new residential complexes have opened or are under construction.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to connect and learn about the history of the Johnson Brothers,” Joseph said. “It’s a great amenity for local residents but I think it’s going to be a tourist attraction as well. We do feel it has national merit.”

Lilla Ross is a former Times-Union news editor. She lives in San Marco.

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