John Willis Menard
John Willis Menard

By Spessard Stone

John Willis Menard was an African American journalist, civil rights leader, editor, and poet.

John Willis Menard of colored French Creole parentage was born April 3, 1838 at Kaskaskia, Illinois. Educated at an abolitionist school and at Iberia College in Ohio, Menard early achieved distinction. In 1860 he published An Address to the Free Colored People of Illinois and in 1862 became the first black to obtain a clerkship in the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. Sent to research Belize as a possible colony for the “Negro problem,” he on the expedition met Elizabeth, his Jamaican wife.

In 1865 he relocated to the birth city of his parents, New Orleans, where he variously served as an inspector of customs, commissioner of streets, and edited the Free South and Standard. On November 3, 1868, he, was elected to Louisiana’s Second Congressional District, but, instead of being inducted as the first African American in Congress, the seat was awarded to his opponent as “it was too early to admit a Negro to the U. S. Congress.” He, however, became the first black to address Congress when he on February 27, 1869 spoke in behalf of his rightful office.

Resettling in Jacksonville, Florida, Menard resumed his activism. A prominent Republican, he was awarded a post office position, edited the Florida Sun, and was in the fall of 1873 elected to the state legislator. He was, however, rebuffed in two bids for Congress and adopted a critical role of his party. Democrat George F. Drew in 1877 awarded him by reappointing him as a justice of the peace, which Marcellus L. Stearns had first named him in 1874.

Menard, securing the post of an inspector of customs, removed to Key West where he became the most influential black editor of the 1880s with the Florida News aka Island City News as his forum. After 1884, he returned to Jacksonville where he battled for the rights and interests of blacks with the newspaper Southern Leader, which he continued to 1888.

In 1889 he accepted a clerkship in the census office and moved to Washington, D.C. where he died on October 8, 1893.

J. Willis Menard and his wife, Elizabeth, had three children, Willis, Jr., Mary Jeanette (Mrs. James S. Kinloch of Duval County), and Alice (Mrs. Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs of Duval Colunty).

Menard’s principal legacy is Lays In Summer Lands, which he compiled and published in 1879 Lays In Summer Lands contains a catholic range of subjects, from political themes, to poems relating to geography, faith, and love. Noteworthy are “To President Lincoln,” “The Negro’s Lament,” “The Solid South,” “Florida,” “On the Banks of the St. Johns,” “Sabbath Eve Musings,” “Easter Hymn,” “Parted,” “Speak to Me Kindly,” “Adieu.”

This profile is adapted from my review, published in The Herald-Advocate of February 14, 2002, of Lays In Summer Lands, edited by Larry Eugene Rivers, Canter Brown, Jr., and Richard Matthews

January 23, 2002 & music = "Lift Every Voice."