Our American Journey: James Weldon Johnson Pens the Negro National Anthem

At the age of 28, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) began to pen a poem which would become one of the most celebrated hymns of all time. Johnson was not only a writer, but also a lawyer, teacher, United States diplomat, and was one of the leading figures in the birth of the Harlem Renaissance.  Johnson is the author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as The Negro National Anthem. 

VOICE OF A PEOPLE, SONG OF A NATION

American journey of Black History Month

OUR AMERICAN JOURNEY: JAMES WELDON JOHNSON PENS THE NEGRO NATIONAL ANTHEM: Brothers J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson composed many musical compositions during their lifetime. Photo, courtesy ASCAP.

James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida to James Johnson and Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, a native of Nassau, Bahamas. After receiving his bachelor’s and law degrees, he became the first African-American to pass the bar in the state of Florida.  Johnson balanced dual careers as educator and lawyer, while also writing poetry. In 1900, at the age of 29, he was asked to speak at an observance at the Florida school where he was principal but chose to write a piece instead. That piece became what we now know as Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.

Said James Weldon Johnson –

“A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

“Shortly afterward my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”[1]

our american journey james weldon johnson negro national anthem

OUR AMERICAN JOURNEY: JAMES WELDON JOHNSON PENS THE NEGRO NATIONAL ANTHEM – In 1939, renowned artist Augusta Savage received a commission from the World’s Fair for a work of art. She created a 16-foot plaster sculpture titled “The Harp”, which was inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The sounding board of the harp is the arm and hand of God.

NEGRO HISTORY AND THE NAACP

In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded and by 1920, Johnson was appointed as its Executive Secretary.  He served in the role from 1920-1930; working with the organization to combat racism, lynching, and segregation.  Meanwhile, the popularity of his anthem began to spread throughout the South. Copies of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could be found in Black churches across the country, and the NAACP had adopted it as its theme song. It was also during this time that “Negro History Week” (now “Black History Month” or “African American History Month) was first celebrated, conceived by noted historian Carter G. Woodson.  According to Harry Henderson and Romare Bearden in A History of African-American Artists (From 1792 to the Present)-

“[Lift Every Voice and Sing] resonates strongly as a Christian hymn because it is a song about Exodus. It is a story of a journey sanctified by faith, and protected and prospered by God”[2].

Though the Johnson brothers wrote over 200 songs together (mostly for the stage), this anthem would be their most renowned. Recent historic references to Lift Every Voice include the recitation of its 3rd stanza by Civil Rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery (formerly president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), for his benediction at the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama in 2009, and a beautiful performance by noted soprano Denyce Graves at the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC in 2016.

Lift Every Voice and Sing continues to serve as inspiration of a people, and an anthem of resilience, hope and faith – not only for African Americans but also for all Americans who are on the journey to freedom, liberty and justice. 

 

LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING

Lift every voice and sing,

‘Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ’til victory is won.west angeles logo

CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE FOR A PDF OF THE COMPLETE LYRICS


Watch violinist Karen Briggs perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at West Angeles Church of God In Christ below:

[1] – Poetry Foundation, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/46549

[2] – Bearden, Romare and Henderson, Harry:  A History of African-American Artists (From 1792 to the Present), Pantheon Books (Random House), 1993, ISBN 0-394-57016-2. Pp. 168-180.

Image of Augusta Savage, courtesy, New York Public Library.