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Seventy-five years ago, the friends of James Weldon Johnson were considering how to remember him. Before he died suddenly, when his car was hit by a train, Johnson had had a career that spanned civil rights activism (as a leader in the NAACP and anti-lynching campaigns), poetry, Tin Pan Alley music, novels, and diplomatic work in Latin America. His legacy was immense and difficult to narrow down. So, his friends, led by writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, formed a collection at Yale University in 1941 that would focus not just on Johnson’s life, but on the wider accomplishments of African Americans in culture.
Destined to Be Known: The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at 75, organized by Melissa Barton and Nancy Kuhl, is currently on view at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The small display comes ahead of the library’s major exhibition Gather out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance and Beinecke Library, which opens on January 13.
“This show exemplifies what the James Weldon Johnson Collection represents: you can only know American history and culture with a comprehension of African-American history and culture,” Kuhl, who’s the curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL), told Hyperallergic. Barton, who serves as the curator of prose and drama in YCAL, adds in the video below that “James Weldon Johnson is one of the most important figures in African-American history … and he is not well enough known.”
The collection contains papers from W. E. B. Du Bois, Poppy Cannon White, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy Peterson, along with manuscripts from Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman. There’s also art, such as sculptures by Richmond Barthé and Augusta Savage and drawings by Mary Bell. And the collection continues to grow — recent acquisitions include the archives of suffragist and anti-lynching activist Ellen Barksdale-Brown and over 100 letters written by James Baldwin. The Destined to Be Known display features selections from both Johnson’s work — like the handwritten manuscript for his “National Hymn (Lift Every Voice and Sing)” — and these rich resources, together offering a tribute to Johnson’s diverse and vibrant legacy.
Destined to Be Known: The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at 75 continues at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (121 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut) through December 10.