Entering Beinecke is quite the experience. Glass encased stacks of books remind one that they have stepped into a world where history is treasured, explored, and archived. On the afternoon of November 17, we were gathered together to explore the legacy of James Weldon Johnson.
Led upstairs by our tour guide, Melissa Barton, co-curator of the exhibit, we found ourselves standing in front of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Artifacts normally archived at Beinecke were on display. Artifacts that tell the story of James Weldon Johnson–a story worth hearing, a story worth knowing. For Mr. Johnson was a man of many talents. Activist, lawyer, statesman, author–any of these descriptions may be applied to him; all are true depictions of who he was. Yet the titles do not seem to fully encapsulate the importance of his talents and contributions.
Killed in an automobile accident in 1938, Mr. Johnson’s friend, Carl Van Vechten, and others moved by his life’s work sought to memorialize him. Beginning as an effort to erect a statue of Mr. Johnson in Manhattan, Van Vechten and the committee sought instead to establish a collection of African American Arts and Letters at Yale in his honor. As a result, the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection was born and celebrates its 75-year existence this year.
Within the collection and on display for us are The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, a manuscript notebook within whose pages are written the lyrics to songs Mr. Johnson wrote including the “National Hymn” Lift Every Voice and Sing, poetry he penned, pictures of the man himself alongside his brother who was also a talented contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, among other items. Details carefully and thoughtfully researched are explained along the 13 informational panels. From his role as a Civil Rights activist to his work as a poet and lyricist to his time spent as a member of the Fisk University faculty becoming the first African American to be granted tenure, there is a plethora of information to learn and absorb, for Mr. Johnson’s legacy is profound having contributed the African American voice to American culture in outstanding ways. Mr. Johnson stretched the boundaries, broke through barriers, and put forth his most excellent self. It is indeed a collection to see!
While the rare items we enjoyed learning about that afternoon are now safely back in Beinecke’s archives – the tour ended Dec. 10 – this Spring Beinecke will again display artifacts related to the African American experience, specifically the Harlem Renaissance. It will be another opportunity to take in and reflect upon the importance of contributions made by African Americans and their impact then and now. If you missed DESTINED TO BE KNOWN, please consider taking some time to visit Beinecke this Spring to partake of this special collection. As a leading figure in the creation and development of the Harlem Renaissance, Mr. Johnson’s work will most certainly be present.