Our friend Rev. Alice O'Donovan was up last week for a visit on her way to Monhegan Island for her annual two week stint as pastor. She was telling me about James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse as her favorite inspiration for sermons and about accompanying it with his poem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" set to music by his brother. The latter is often cited as the "Negro National Anthem". I remembered Johnson as an extraordinarily talented man (writer, teacher, lawyer, musician and one time head of the NAACP- the list goes on) from an 8th grade integrated unit during Black History Month at Molly Ockett Middle School back in the 1990's. We had kids draw names of famous blacks from a hat and do research on them. Johnson was one of more than 100 names - some like Josephine Baker and Mohammad Ali were more splashy than him - but he had a great impact on his people and times. In the course of the conversation Alice told me, "You know, he died in a train crash in Wiscasset?" I just had to look it up!
Johnson had many prominent friends, black and white, in literature, education, music and law and was visiting one of them at a summer home in Maine in June 1938. On the return trip, on his way to his own summer home in Great Barrington, MA, Johnson met his death. (Some sources say Johnson had a summer place in Maine- but not so) Johnson and his wife Grace were traveling by car; she was at the wheel according to her own account to the insurance company. (Many sources assume he was driving, but he said often that he preferred to leave the driving to his wife.) Heading south, they crossed a bridge over the Sheepscot River in a driving rain (some say thunder) storm and immediately encountered a poorly marked railroad crossing. This must have been on the Wiscasset waterfront, historically very busy and laced with wharfs and railroad tracks. They were hit by a fast moving train and both were severely injured. Johnson suffered two broken legs and a fractured skull; he may have died instantly according to a few accounts or suffered, by other accounts, as many as 10 days before passing.
Johnson's funeral, attended by more than 2,000 people, was held in Harlem, the center of African American culture at the time and probably the central location of his life. The dates of the accident and even of his death are in question. Most accounts give the date of the accident as June 17th (his birthday) and his death as June 26, 1938. Noelle Morrissette in her book James Weldon Johnson's Modern Soundscapes gives the date of death as June 28th and refers heavily to Grace Johnson's own insurance report.
If you look at that train crossing today (and you could spend significant time in summer traffic doing so), you might wonder how such an accident could occur. The tracks go straight along the waterfront for some distance in each direction and perpendicular to the end of the bridge. However, in the 1930's, things looked significantly different. Several rail lines met in Wiscasset. The superstructure of piers and buildings that supported Wiscasset's successful shipping center was still in place and much of it was still in use. The Donald Davey Bridge was yet to be built, and the crossing was made on a long, flat bridge largely made of wood with a draw in the center. This could all add up to limited visibility that in a heavy summer storm could easily make seeing a rapidly approaching train nearly impossible. The waterfront is all cleaned up now with little indication of its past. You can google some historic images of Wiscasset to see what it looked like back in the day. See this article for biographical info but not much on his death.