Written by Marsha Dean Phelts
In a meeting of the Duval County School Board last week, the Board voted to close the James Weldon Johnson Middle School. The decision to close this academic magnet school purportedly is due to low student enrollment. According to the proposal those now attending James Weldon Johnson will be assigned to Paxon Middle and Paxon’s students will be enrolled at Eugene Butler. This move is scheduled to take place next school year beginning August 2011.
There are numerous questions; foremost is what school will continue the respected name of James Weldon Johnson? There should never be a time in this city that a Duval County public school does not bear the name James Weldon Johnson. Another question is, after closing the school what happens to the building and the site? The school board could give this property to Edward Waters College as these two properties are adjoining.
In a Déjà-vu flashback, many instantly recall a similar strategy deployed over forty years ago when the entire school system was ordered to desegregate. Back in 1969, a major implementation of the integration plan went into effect. As a result of this plan numerous schools in black neighborhoods were shut down to prevent white students from being bussed in certain Black neighborhoods. Those geographically named schools in Black communities like West Lewisville/Forrest Park, Oakland and Jacksonville Beach Elementary were discarded and reduced to rubbish. Public school facilities bearing names of prominent role models such as Isaiah Blocker and A. L. Lewis were closed and torn down, assuring that those schools never open again. In closing these schools the names of positive historical figures were erased from positively imprinting the futures of the youth that James Weldon Johnson so eloquently wrote of in his prose,
“You are young, gifted, and Black.
We must begin to tell our young,
There’s a world waiting for you,
Yours is the quest that’s just begun.”
For over a century James Weldon Johnson has been one of Jacksonville’s great citizens.
He was born in LaVilla, spent his formative years in the city and was educated in our public schools as high as the system provided education for Negro students and upon completion of high school and college in Atlanta. It was James Weldon Johnson, former student at Stanton Grade School who in 1894 became principal then added higher grades, (from 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th) while upgrading the curriculum thus establishing the first accredited high school for Blacks in the state of Florida. The contributions of James Weldon Johnson are too significant for his name to be retired from an active public educational institution in Jacksonville .
Jacksonville, Florida is the only place on planet earth that can boast of being the birthplace of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson, the brothers who in 1900 wrote the words and lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing while serving as principal and music instruct or at Stanton High School.
Jacksonville appropriately should have a school named in honor of #1 James Weld on Johnson and his brother #2 John Rosam ond Johnson, #3 their mother, Helen Dillet Johnson , Florida’s first Black school teacher and their father #4 Jam es William Johnson, pastor of the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church who came to Jacksonville in 1869.
Upon the closing of James Weldon Johnson at 1840 W. 9t h Street, another public school bearing the name James Weldon Johnson must take pla ce immediately. Whether this is a new school opening or under constructed in 2011, this new facility should be given the name James Weldon Johnson. A second alternative would be to rename LaVilla the James Weldon Johnson L aVilla School for the Arts (if this school has not been named in someone’s honor).
Due to under performance of students enrolled in neighborhood schools in the Black community several of these schools are in danger of being closed by the state. This is not the case for the James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory Sc hool, nevertheless the school is closing.
Please contact school board members and ask them to keep an active public school named for James Weldon Johnson who in the millennium year 2000 was inducted into The Florida Artists Hall of Fame E-Mail and Phone:
• District 1 – Martha Barrett | firstname.lastname@example.org | 904-390-2371
• District 2 – Fred “Fel” Lee | email@example.com | 904-390-2386