James Weldon Johnson Source: Library of Congress

State and local political leaders are working to memorialize the life and legacy of poet and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson, who was killed in an accident in Wiscasset in 1938.

Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, sponsored a bill that became law in June 2021 marking June 17 James Weldon Johnson Annual Observance Day in Maine.

The date falls close to Juneteenth, the June 19 federal holiday marking the June 19, 1865 announcement proclaiming freedom for slaves in Texas, the last Confederate state with slavery.

A task force of Wiscasset residents, a civil rights organization, historical societies, literary societies and others will “develop methods to educate the public on James Weldon Johnson’s life and legacy in order to continue his work to end systemic racism,” according to the bill, as well as find a way to memorialize Johnson’s life. The memorial could take the form of a scholarship, celebration or marker.

Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was a writer, civil rights activist and college professor. He wrote songs for Broadway and was the first Black man to pass the bar and become a lawyer in Florida, according to Bob Greene, a former journalist and historian of Maine’s Black history.

Johnson became the United States consul in Venezuela by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Three years later, he was moved to Nicaragua to serve as consul, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.


In 1916, he served as a field secretary for NAACP, campaigned for a federal anti-lynching bill and spoke at the 1919 National Conference on Lynching. The NAACP estimates that more than 3,400 Black people were victims of lynching, much of which occurred prior to 1930 but also continues to the present day.

In the early 1920s, Johnson became NAACP executive secretary and fought against segregation and voter disenfranchisement in the South.

“He was a successful guy no matter what you look at,” said Greene. “Unfortunately, the one thing Maine is known for in connection to him is his death.”

Johnson died on June 28, 1938, while vacationing in Wiscasset when a train struck his car, driven by his wife, on Route 1.

Though Johnson built an impressive resume, his most famous work remains “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often considered the Black national anthem. Johnson wrote the lyrics and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music.

The hymn was written in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Five hundred children from the segregated Stanton School, where Johnson was principal, sang it for the occasion, according to the NAACP. Though “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the work Johnson is most famous for, Greene said the Johnson brothers didn’t think of it as being particularly special.


“The brothers moved to New York and started writing Broadway shows and forgot about it,” said Greene. “If it was left up to them, that song would’ve died. But the children kept singing it, and as they grew up, they taught it to their children and became teachers and taught it in school, and that’s what kept it going.”

The song, which began as a poem, tells the story of Black Americans who, despite facing oppression in the form of slavery, segregation and racism for generations, are hopeful for a brighter future.

The lyrics read: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

Though it’s over 120 years old, Greene said the song has only grown more popular over time. Despite its popularity, however, Greene said he hopes the memorial in Wiscasset will look beyond “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” because “he’s too important of a person.”

Sen. Chole Maxim, D-Lincoln, who co-sponsored the bill, said memorializing Johnson “tells an important part of our history here in Lincoln County.”

“It’s about honoring all of those who have worked to create a more understanding and inclusive world,” Maxim said. “We have a responsibility to tell the histories of Black and Indigenous voices and to hear these stories that are so often silenced or ignored.”

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