Still Standing: James Weldon Johnson Park looks to future of renovations 

Words by Mallory Pace

 

Since its founding in 1822, Jacksonville has seen its fair share of makeovers and evolution. Buildings go up, statues come down, bridges are built, roads are paved, but very few sites and structures remain unscathed. For over 200 years, one park, located at the core of Downtown, has kept its purpose and sentiment: James Weldon Johnson Park. While its name has changed a few times over the years (remember Hemming Plaza?), the park stands as the soul of Jacksonville, and it has big plans.

 

Friends of James Weldon Johnson Park is a nonprofit organization that has managed the park’s day-to-day activities and events since 2014. By maintaining the parks’ liveliness and appearance, their goal is to keep the park active and vibrant in hopes of boosting Downtown in a more social and positive way. In July of 2022, the organization announced the completion of a three-year strategic plan that aims to create improvements to the park’s environment and dynamics. Liz McCoy, executive director of the nonprofit, said the city applied for a Florida grant for organizations that are either named after, or benefited by African-Americans. With the approval of that grant, the park received $1 million to which the city council had to match by 25%, making a total of $1.25 million being designated for the park’s remodel. The money was also used for certain demolitions, including the park’s fountains because of their old age and costly upkeep, McCoy explained. Grass was laid in its place, giving people a taste of what’s to come. Plans are still in the design phase as details and public opinion continue to be worked on and perfected, but the future is bright.

 

“We want to make sure that whatever’s in the new design, there’s going to be a lot more grass and soft landscaping, so that it will be more inviting and more appealing,” McCoy said.

 

As it stands today, the park is recognized as the hub of commerce and home to community gatherings within the downtown area. In 2021, the park drew an estimated 86,000 visitors, according to the JWJ Park website. On any given day, you’ll find the park attracting all kinds of people who are likely grabbing a bite to eat at one of the rotating food trucks that sit in the park each day. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, you’ll hear live music filling the streets and lifting spirits. The park also hosts monthly festivals for various holidays and special events, like Viva la Fiesta, Brew & BBQ and Art in the Park, each drawing thousands of attendees. McCoy also emphasized the importance of special events being done authentically. That means partnering with appropriate cultural groups and sponsors to create an accurate, genuine representation of what or who the festival is celebrating. 

 

As Downtown continues to grow and expand its residential opportunities, McCoy explained that one priority for the park’s redesign is to be an amenity for future residents and continue to be a place for people to gather, socialize and have fun. Along with making the park more green with grass and plants, McCoy is also looking toward being green with sustainability and conservation, honoring its history. 

 

“We want to make sure we are a place where people can come to reflect, a place where people can engage with each other, meet their neighbors and also engage with City Hall,” McCoy said. 

 

What makes the park so significant is its rich history as a significant landmark of the city. The 1.5 acre public square was a gleam in Isaiah Hart’s eye, Jacksonville’s very first city planner, as he created the original blueprints for the downtown area in 1822. A lot has changed since then; buildings and businesses have come and gone, activity and liveliness fluctuate, crime spikes and new additions replace old ones. Remodels and renovations are inevitable, and since the heirs of Isaiah Hart sold the park to the city in 1866 for a whopping $10, the park has seen its fair share of changes. Here’s some history: 

 

When the park was first sold to the city of Jacksonville, it was named, simply and fittingly, City Park. Then in 1869, the St. James hotel was built across the street and the park was renamed St. James Park. Thirty years later, Civil War veteran Charles C. Hemming donated a Confederate monument to the park, renaming it Hemming Park. Then the Great Fire of 1901 burned and destroyed most of Jacksonville’s downtown area, though, Charles C. Hemming monument remained intact. In 1977, the park was transformed into a plaza as bricks and pavers replaced the lawn and natural landscape. In 2020, then-Mayor Lenny Curry ordered the Confederate statue to be removed from the park “as the start of a commitment to everyone in our city that we will find a way to respect each other and thrive.” 

 

This decision was celebrated by the city, especially as the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement was stirring through the country and inciting change. Curry’s decision to remove the statue was made just as a Black Lives Matter protest was scheduled to happen in and around the park. McCoy explained that instead of a march, it became a victory celebration. Later that year, Jacksonville’s City Council voted to rename the park to honor James Weldon Johnson.

 

Simply put, James Weldon Johnson was a jack of all trades. Throughout his life, Johnson was heavily influenced by his mother and her love for music and literature. After graduating from Atlanta University in 1894, he returned to Jacksonville and taught at Stanton Elementary until he became principal and later expanded the school to include high school education. During his tenure, he studied law and in 1898 became the first Black man admitted to the Florida Bar. His love and passion for music and poetry remained prominent in his life — he and his brother went on to compose and write the famous “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became widely known as the Black national anthem. The song was later adopted by the NAACP and was used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. 

 

Over his lifetime, Johnson served as a prominent diplomat and civil rights leader, using his education and artistry to be the voice for liberating African-Americans. He worked diligently with the NAACP and eventually became president of the organization. Through it all, he continued writing poetry, authoring several books and making music. Johnson was dedicated to fighting for the freedom and equality of all people — it’s only appropriate to honor his name as part of Jacksonville’s oldest park. 

 

Honoring the history of Downtown is pivotal to the park’s remodeling plans. Even as it looks to a brighter future of celebrance and community, the complex history of the park is what makes it a historical landmark and reminder of how far the city has come.

 

“That’s very important because so much of our history within Jacksonville, and particularly in Downtown has been torn down to make way for new,” McCoy said. “We want to honor history — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

 

Spearheading the design of the park is Walter Hood, a world-renowned designer from Hood Design Studios. Hood also designed the Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, currently under construction, just a few blocks away which honors both James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. 

 

“Hood will take the entire scope of the history of Jacksonville and really design with that in mind,” McCoy said. “Because of working with Walter so far, I know there will be a place for catharsis, and hopefully some healing and mending within the design.” 

 

The redesign plan started with about 16 different concepts, McCoy said, with the final decision hopefully being made by early 2024. Then begins cost analyses, city council planning and voting, further funding expeditions and then construction. The park will continue its fundraising efforts to maximize the park’s potential. A tailgate fundraiser event will be held at Folio’s Duuuval House on Dec. 31 to raise money for the project. The entire process is spread out over the next three years and if all goes well, the grand reveal will be ready in 2026. At the end of it all, McCoy hopes that a new, more inviting park at the heart of Downtown will liven up the area and become a place of community and friendship again. 

 

“Downtown is the heart of Jacksonville, and our park is the heart of Downtown,” McCoy said. “So by investing in the future of this park, we’re investing in the future of Jacksonville.”

 

The park’s history and unwavering resilience is a reflection of the Jacksonville community. The future of the park — its events, concerts, festivals, game days, cultural celebrations and more — will prove to serve the people of this city, bringing us together while nodding to the past.  

About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.