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Congressman Al Lawson

Representing the 5th District of Florida

Congressman Lawson Introduces Bill to Designate James Weldon Johnson’s Jacksonville Home as National Landmark

February 14, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON DC— U.S. Representative Al Lawson (FL-05) introduced the James Weldon Johnson Historical Preservation Act (H.R.5005) – to designate the Jacksonville, Fla. birthplace of James Weldon Johnson as a national landmark. Johnson is most notably recognized as an activist, educator and songwriter of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

“I am pleased to introduce a bill designating James Weldon Johnson’s birthplace as a national landmark and memorialize his legacy as a leader for our community,” Rep. Al Lawson said. “Johnson contributed integrity, knowledge and dedication to our nation through his life’s work. Since his passing in 1938, he has remained an icon and inspiration not only to the city of Jacksonville, but throughout the United States.”

Born in 1871, Johnson grew up in Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood with his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson. After earning his college degree in Georgia, James Weldon Johnson returned home and became the principal of Stanton Grade School, where he improved the educational standards of the school’s curriculum. In 1897, while serving as the principal, Johnson became the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since Reconstruction.

At the Stanton School, he wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as a poem to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. His brother later composed music to the poem, which was adopted by the NAACP and the rest of the nation as the Negro National Anthem.

“Both brothers made significant contributions to the country for African Americans that still have a positive effect in the community,” said Lloyd Washington, president of Jacksonville’s Durkeeville Historical Society. “Every time the music for ‘Lift E’vry Voice and Sing’ is played, and the audience stands and the words are sung, it evokes a feeling of admiration and respect for the history and strength of our forefathers and mothers. The designation of the birth site as a National Register Site would validate that African-American history matters every month of the year – and the proof lives at the northwest corner of Jacksonville’s Lee and Houston streets.”

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. He later became a leader within the NAACP, where he challenged the disfranchisement of African Americans.

“The recognition of the contributions of the Johnson brothers may be long overdue, but it is also right on time,” said Tony Allegretti, executive director for the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. “Jacksonville natives are very much like the Johnsons – diverse, multicultural, innovative, determined, ambitious and relentless in our pursuits. Celebrating these heroes and making sure their stories are told is something this city will embrace and cherish. Keeping James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson's legacy alive through historic designation and ultimately memorials befitting these great Americans will inspire future Jacksonville leaders for years to come.”

“I think it is wonderful that Congressman Lawson is introducing this legislation for such an outstanding statesman,” said Marsha Phelts, a Jacksonville historian.This recognition is long overdue. Jacksonville is the only place on the planet that can claim him as its own. His impact and contribution orbits beyond America. He made his mark in Jacksonville, with the Stanton School, and went beyond to do even more.”

Lawson has 19 co-sponsors for the James Weldon Johnson Historical Preservation Act legislation: Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida); Alcee Hasting (D-Florida); Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida); Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida); Bill Posey (FL-08), Kathy Castor (D-Florida); Stephanie Murphy (D-Florida); John Rutherford (R-Florida); Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Florida); Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Florida); Daniel Webster (R-Florida); Gregory Meeks (D-Florida); Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia); Hank Johnson (D-Georgia); Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon); Jim Costa (D-California); Darren Soto (D-Florida); Rep. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey).