Friends of James Weldon Johnson Park is a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 and contracted with the City of Jacksonville to revitalize the city’s first and most historic public park. James Weldon Johnson Park is located in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, adjacent to City Hall, the main branch of the Jacksonville Public Library, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Our mission is to transform James Weldon Johnson Park into a modern, urban space that engages diverse communities and restores vitality to our city’s public square. We accomplish this by adding and maintaining landscaping and amenities and providing daily programming. Our park ambassadors and security welcome and share information with our guests while ensuring that James Weldon Johnson Park is clean and safe. Our programming is informed and supported by a variety of community partnerships.

The park includes two performance stages; Charlie’s Cafe, an outdoor dining area; a Kids’ Zone with whimsical sculptural seating and turf play area; beautiful landscaping; and several public art projects. Regular programming includes live music and food trucks each Monday through Friday; children’s activities; and weekend festivals and markets.

Park History

James Weldon Johnson Park Park, a 1.5-acre public square in the center of the city, is Jacksonville’s first and oldest park and the site of many significant historic events. Land for the public square – identified in Isaiah Hart’s original plans for Jacksonville – was sold to the city in 1866 by Hart’s heirs, for a price of $10. The park became the cultural and social center of the city, and for over a century it was the heart of downtown, the hub of commerce, and the public meeting place for citizens from all walks of life.

Timeline of James Weldon Johnson Park events:

1866 Heirs of Isaiah Hart sell the park to the City of Jacksonville for $10. The park is known as City Park.
1869 The St. James Hotel is constructed across the street and the park is renamed St. James Park.
1899 Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming donates a confederate monument to the park. The park is renamed Hemming Park.
1901 The Great Fire of 1901 burns and destroys most of Jacksonville’s urban core. The Charles C. Hemming monument is the lone structure left standing in the park.
1977 Hemming Park undergoes a transformation into a plaza. Bricks and pavers are introduced, covering the lawn and natural landscape. The park is then named Hemming Plaza.
2014 The plaza is renamed Hemming Park to reflect the aspiration to introduce more green space and encourage a greener, friendlier, more natural atmosphere.
2020 Mayor Lenny Curry orders the confederate statue removed from Hemming Park “as the start of a commitment to everyone in our city that we will find a way to respect each other and thrive.”
2020 Jacksonville’s City Council renames the park to honor native son, civil rights leader, poet, educator, lawyer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson Park.
2020 James Weldon Johnson Park contains a variety of historical landmarks and monuments, including the Charles Edward Bennett Statue, a John F. Kennedy Memorial, the Great Fire of 1901 Plaque and the Axe Handle Saturday plaque.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, FL. As a child, he studied piano and guitar. The achievement of his father, headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, inspired him to pursue a professional career. Molded by the classical education for which Atlanta University was best known, Johnson regarded his academic training as a trust. He knew he was expected to devote himself to helping black people advance. He graduated with honors in 1894 and returned to Jacksonville to teach at Stanton High School, where he later became Principal. While principal, he founded and edited the first Negro daily in the United States, The Daily American.

During this time at Stanton, James wrote poetry and began to collaborate with his brother, John Rosamond, on lyrics and music. Together they wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1899 to honor renowned educator Booker T. Washington and performed for the first time in 1900 by 500 school children as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song became widely popular and has become known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted. The song included the following lines:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

In 1897

In 1897, Johnson was the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar Exam since the Reconstruction era ended. He was also the first black in Duval County to seek admission to the state bar. In order to be accepted, Johnson had a two-hour oral examination before three attorneys and a judge. He later recalled that one of the examiners, not wanting to see a black man admitted, left the room.[11] Johnson drew on his law background especially during his years as a civil rights activist and leading the NAACP.

In 1901

In 1901, James Weldon and his brother, John Rosamond, joined with William “Bob” Cole to write and produce songs and musical comedies, traveling throughout the United States and Europe.  He left the trio in 1906 when asked by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration to become the American Consul in Venezuela, and later, Nicaragua.  During his diplomacy, he also found time to author poetry and books such as Autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManGod’s Trombones, and Along This Way, his autobiography.
When he returned to New York, Johnson supported and promoted the Harlem Renaissance, trying to help young black authors to get published. Shortly before his death in 1938, Johnson supported efforts by Ignatz Waghalter, a Polish-Jewish composer who had escaped the Nazis of Germany, to establish a classical orchestra of African-American musicians.

In 1920

In 1920 Johnson was chosen as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, effectively the operating officer position. He served in this role through 1930. He lobbied for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921, which was passed easily by the House, but repeatedly defeated by the white Southern bloc in the Senate.

In 1938

Johnson died in 1938 while vacationing in Wiscasset, Maine when the car his wife was driving was hit by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.[6] Johnson’s ashes are interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in BrooklynNew York.

For more information on James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson,
visit The Ritz Theatre and Museum.

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