Jacksonville history was celebrated on a hot Friday afternoon in February.
The celebration took place in a vacant lot next to the Salvation Army building in LaVilla, within sight of the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
The celebration had two purposes, to celebrate native son James Weldon Johnson and the song he and his brother, Rosamond, wrote, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
That song, written for Stanton students, spread throughout the country.
In poetic verse it tells the story of the African-American story of this nation. One must remember it was being written in a time that the freedoms won during the Civil War were being turned back with Jim Crow laws that returned blacks in the South to second-class citizens.
Johnson knew that if he wanted all the freedoms he deserved, had to leave his hometown.
In the process, he became a Broadway songwriter, a diplomat, U.S. consul to Nicaragua and Venezuela.
As one of the early leaders of the NAACP, he campaigned against lynchings, the domestic terrorism that plagued the country.
Johnson’s achievements are unmatched in Jacksonville history because he had to hurdle so many roadblocks.
After graduating from the Stanton school, he graduated from Atlanta College and returned to Stanton as a teacher and then principal. He added high school classes to Stanton.
He passed the Florida Bar in an open exam before a state judge when blacks weren’t admitted to law school.
He started his own newspaper, the Daily American, in 1895 because promotions were scarce for blacks when he worked at The Florida Times-Union.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is well known throughout America. The fact that he hails from Jacksonville, less so.
A group of Jacksonville civic activists led by former state Sen. Tony Hill, former School Board member Constance Hall and Lloyd Washington of the Durkeeville Historical Society are seeking to right this wrong by turning Johnson’s Jacksonville birth home site in LaVilla into a memorial.
A unique sculptural design creates an image of the home that once stood there. Markers will describe the history.
The location, convenient to the interstate and the Prime Osborn Convention Center, would make this memorial a good place for tourism.
It could be the start of a historical trail that tells the story of America’s relationship with its African-American sons and daughters.
Jacksonville has more than enough such history here.
But the problem is that it has not received adequate attention or promotion.
To the north, the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island holds the dramatic story of former slave Anna Kingsley, who became the wife of the plantation owner and eventually ran the operation.
To the south, Fort Mose, near St. Augustine, was founded in 1738 as the first free community of ex-slaves.
These and other fascinating stories can be told in the Jacksonville area.
Regrettably, they are not promoted well enough.
Too often they are viewed as African-American history when they deserve to be remembered as simply American history.
The story of this country can’t be accurately told without including a full depiction of the role played by African-Americans in building America.
From Crispus Attucks, who fought and died at the the Boston Massacre, to the blacks who built our nation’s capital, to the 180,000 soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, to all of those forgotten souls who bravely persisted through the worst indignities of lynchings and oppressions, the complete story of America’s history needs to be remembered and revered.
Jacksonville has its proud examples of that history. That vacant lot at Lee and Adams streets deserves a memorial to our native son, James Weldon Johnson.
And it should be an important part of a trail of history through Northeast Florida, an educational and a tourist attraction.
Let’s make it happen.