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Unveiling Ceremony: George Washington Johnson Historic Plaque

Updated: Oct 13, 2020

On Saturday, April 12, 2014, Friends of Maple Grove placed a historic plaque at the unmarked grave of George Washington Johnson (1846 – 1914), the first successful African-American recording star in recording history.

Carved on a stone wall at the Center at Maple Grove Cemetery is a 3000 year old Egyptian Proverb. "If you speak the name of the dead, they will come back to life." On April 12th, we spoke the name of George Washington Johnson, buried at Maple Grove, and brought his life story back for all to enjoy! Those present came to remember and to celebrate his life. He rose from slavery to become the first African-American recording Super Star of the phonograph and the recording industry. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his death in 1914. His grave was devoid of his name or marker for 100 years and on April 12 that error was rectified with the unveiling of a worthy monument to his honor.

The entire day was a wonderful celebration! The weather was perfect! I was delighted by the presence of so many people who came. I wish to thank the Board of Directors of the Friends of Maple Grove, Clyde Bullard, Andrew Koslosky, and the Josephine Foundation.

I was deeply honored to present our very distinguished guest and key note speaker, author, historian, executive producer and Grammy winner, Tim Brooks, who wrote the remarkable book, Lost Sounds. This book lit the flame of recognition for George Washington Johnson. Mr. Brooks spoke the name of George Washington Johnson and the world stopped to listen. His lecture was fascinating and very informative.

The lecture was followed by a procession to the African-American Burial Ground of the Shiloh First Colored Presbyterian Church. A moment of silence was observed and flowers were laid at the 1877 monument.

We then walked to the grave of George Washington Johnson. The procession was led by noted film and TV star, Broadway actor, and singer, Larry Marshall, who came and portrayed George Washington Johnson. Mr. Marshall dressed in period costume, gave a wonderful performance as George Washington Johnson, and even had the whole audience clapping when he sang George Washington Johnson's greatest hit, The Laughing Song! We were joined by Don Capalbi representing Congresswoman Meng and Nayelli Turrent representing Queens Borough President Melinda Katz along with Jennifer Leff who represented the Grammy Foundation - MusiCares. The Grammy Foundation gave the Friends of Maple Grove a grant of $3000 to erect the monument. Many students from the Aquinas Honor Society as well as students from the Immaculate Conception School were also present in full force. They were the ones who were commissioned to write the text for the plaque. The covering was removed to great applause and joy! When I touched the name of George Washington Johnson on the plaque for the first time it filled me with so much emotion. After 100 years of lying in an unmarked grave, to have his name appear was a miracle. A true miracle! We had restored his name.

Upon our return to the Center, Don Capalbi made a presentation on behalf of Congresswoman Grace Meng and declared that April 12 was The Friends of Maple Grove Day in honor of all our historical and cultural work for the community of Queens!!!

Following refreshments, it was an honor to welcome Dr. Kathleen Velsor who did our second lecture about Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and the Underground Railroad on Long Island. Maple Grove is indeed a sacred place. We have over 300 members of Rev. Garnet's parish, the Shiloh First Colored Presbyterian Church of New York, buried there.

The Library of Congress announced that, for 2013, George Washington Johnson's Laughing Song was selected as one of the 25 recordings to be preserved for posterity and placed in the National Registry of Recording Sounds!

Carl Ballenas

President of the Friends of Maple Grove

George Washington Johnson's Laughing Song was selected as one of the 25 recordings to be preserved for posterity and placed in the National Registry of Recording Sounds!

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