James Weldon Johnson Playground
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was an African American intellectual of broad interests and accomplishments who was associated with the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from Atlanta University in 1894, Johnson accepted the post of principal of the Stanton school in Jacksonville, Florida. The following year he founded the first African American-oriented daily newspaper, The Daily American, and in 1898 became an attorney and the first African American to be accepted into the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. During these years he also studied music and collaborated with his brother Rosamond in the composition of several songs and operettas. In 1900, to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday he wrote the poem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which was later adopted by the NAACP as the “Negro National Hymn.”
After a 1901 fire ravaged Jacksonville and burned down the Stanton school, Johnson decided to take his assortment of talents elsewhere and moved to New York City with his brother. Here, he continued to write poetry and was able to devote more of his efforts to collaborating with Rosamond. The popularity of the Johnson brothers’ productions escalated and James became quite successful. James, however, never abandoned his political pursuits and in 1906, through Booker T. Washington’s influence, he received a consular post from the Roosevelt administration. While serving at the Venezuelan consulate in Puerto Cabello, Johnson continued to write extensively, and in his three years there he wrote his novel The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man.
After a subsequent position with the Nicaraguan consulate, Johnson moved back to New York in 1913 and was made editor of the magazine New York Age, the pre-eminent African American daily newspaper of its time. He assumed the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1916, becoming the NAACP's first African-American executive secretary. Ever prolific, Johnson compiled three anthologies of African-American poetry and spirituals and continued to publish his own work even while devoting his career to activism. In 1930, however, he resigned his position to allow himself more time to write and was appointed to a professorship in Creative Writing at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. At the time of his death, Johnson was regarded as a distinguished scholar and activist and was given a large public funeral that reflected his legacy in African American and New York City culture. He is buried in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn.
The James Weldon Johnson Playground was acquired in 1929 by purchase and condemnation and named with the construction of the nearby James Weldon Johnson Housing Project in 1945. It has long served as a playground for the adjacent P.S. 57 elementary school and features a full basketball court, several half courts, and a handball court, all under the watchful eye of the concrete camel that graces the center of the park. In 1997, the play area was repaved and furnished with new playground equipment.
When I come down to sleep death's endless night,
The threshold of the unknown dark to cross,
What to me then will be the keenest loss,
When this bright world blurs on my fading sight?
Will it be that no more I shall see the trees
Or smell the flowers or hear the singing birds
Or watch the flashing streams or patient herds?
No, I am sure it will be none of these.
But, ah! Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells,
Her crowds, her throbbing force, the thrill that comes
From being of her a part, her subtle spells,
Her shining towers, her avenues, her slums—
O God! the stark, unutterable pity,
To be dead, and never again behold my city!
–James Weldon Johnson