The anthem spreads

Augusta Savage’s sculpture Lift Every Voice and Sing, or The Harp

Over the next decades “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” became popular in black churches, schools, and celebrations across the South and beyond. The publishers reissued the music several times, but Johnson found that it spread most widely through unofficial copies. “In traveling round I have commonly found printed or typewritten copies of the words pasted in the backs of hymnals and the songbooks used in Sunday schools, Y.M.C.A.’s, and similar institutions; and I think that this is the method by which it gets its widest circulation,” he wrote. In 1905, Booker T. Washington endorsed the song, and in 1919, the NAACP adopted it as the organization’s official song. Thereafter, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was recognized as the “black national anthem.”

The song’s legacy extends beyond music. In 1939, a year after Johnson’s death, Green Cove Springs-born sculptor Augusta Savage was selected to create a work for the World’s Fair in New York. One of only two black and four female artists chosen, she designed a sculpture inspired by Johnson’s song, known as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or simply “The Harp.” The design depicts a chorus of singers as the strings on an immense harp. Savage created a temporary plaster version for the fair as well as bronze miniatures, but she was never able to raise the funds to create a permanent monument.

Beyonce’s version of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”

The song found renewed popularity during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and it still resonates with listeners in the 21st century. At the Wattstax Festival in 1972, Kim Weston sang the anthem before a crowd of 100,000, and in 2008, Reverend Joseph Lowery recited some of the lines in his benediction at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2018, Beyonce sang a rendition during her historic headlining set at the Coachella music festival, bringing the song to 125,000 concertgoers and millions more who watched or listened at home.

LaVilla’s Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, the location of the Johnson family home where the song was written

Johnson has long been undercelebrated in Jacksonville, but he and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” are becoming better recognized in his hometown. The city designated the site of the Johnson family home Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, and in 2020 a series of events was planned to celebrate the hymn’s 120th anniversary, with the aim of starting an annual tradition. This includes a performance on February 12 at the Ritz Theater and Museum, bringing the song back to the LaVilla neighborhood where it was first sung.

A choir of children singing the hymn at the Ritz Theater and Museum on February 12, 2020. Courtesy of The Florida Times-Union.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.