There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve driven past “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” Park before without noticing it.
The LaVilla park, which was dedicated by the city in 2015, is made up of just a small square of land. But there is plenty of significance behind this particular piece of land.
Long before it was an empty lot, a small house sat on this land in which James Weldon Johnson was born.
Johnson led a truly remarkable life, becoming the first African-American to pass Florida’s state bar exam, and rising the ranks within the NAACP all the way to executive secretary. He even served as a foreign diplomat under President Theodore Roosevelt.
But his most enduring legacy is a poem that he wrote.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was originally written to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton High, where Johnson served as principal.
Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music a few years later. They’d collaborated in this way a few times before, with James writing poems and John arranging them into songs. John was impressive in his own right, with a successful career as a writer and classically-trained composer. By this point, they’d both moved to New York City.
The song quickly became a rallying cry for African-Americans, and by 1919 it was declared the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP.
The song’s cultural significance was immense, and it remains a significant element of black American culture today.
The park features placards summarizing the life stories of James and John Johnson, as well as a third that features lyrics from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
The park was previously proposed as part of the planned LaVilla Experience historic block, but those plans never came to fruition. It came to exist largely thanks to the efforts of Durkeeville Historical Society, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of one of Jax’s largest historical black suburbs. When it was originally dedicated, plans were announced for art installations as a second phase of the park. As of yet, phase two has yet to happen.
Nonetheless, it’s great that the city has recognized the birthplace of two men responsible for one of the country’s most historically significant songs.