A Sunday Service Tribute to Civil Rights Leader James Weldon Johnson

On Sunday evening in the Bowdoin chapel, people gathered for a service that departed from the norm for the campus. The event, called “God’s Trombones,” was a tribute to James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), a civil rights activist, writer, composer, politician, educator and lawyer. He is probably best known for his leadership of the NAACP in the 1920s and his role in the Harlem Renaissance.

The Sunday night service was named for “God’s Trombones,” a collection of poems Johnson published in 1927. The event featured three reverends — two from Portland churches and Rev. Dr. H. Roy Partridge, who is a lecturer at Bowdoin College and special advisor to the president for multicultural affairs. The two guests — Rev. Kenneth Lewis Jr. and Bishop Steve Coleman — preach at the Green Memorial AME Zion Church and Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, respectively. Reverend Al Niese, who did not participate in the service, was given credit as the inspiration behind the event.

Johnson, who was born in Florida, was the first African American to pass the Florida bar, and he wrote, in 1900 with his brother, the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which eventually became the anthem for the NAACP. The brothers would go on to write more than 200 songs for Broadway musicals. Johnson also write hundreds of stories and poems. He eventually moved to New York City and studied literature at Columbia University.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 1914, Johnson became involved in the NAACP, and in 1920, he was chief executive of the organization. He retired from the NAACP in 1930, and in 1934, he became the first African-American professor at New York University. He died in a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, in 1938 when he was 67.

The evening also included two Bowdoin seniors — Symone Howard ’15 and Arhea Marshall ’15 — who spoke about Johnson and recited a poem of his. The choir from the Green Memorial AME Zion Church performed gospel songs. Rev. Rober Ives, Bowdoin’s director of religious and spiritual life, gave the welcome and benediction. Clarissa Brown played the organ.

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