Origin of an anthem

James Weldon Johnson (center) with friend Bob Cole (left) and brother Rosamond (right)

By the winter of 1899, the 28 year old James Weldon Johnson was already one of the most accomplished people in Jacksonville. He had graduated from Atlanta University, passed the Florida bar, founded the state’s first African-American newspaper, and become principal of Stanton School, which he transformed into Florida’s first high school for African Americans. He had also started to make his name as a poet and lyricist, traveling to New York during summer break with his brother, pianist John Rosamond Johnson, to write songs for Broadway. That winter, the brothers created what became their most famous collaboration by far: “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

Johnson had been approached by a group of young men organizing a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, an important holiday for African Americans, to be held on February 12, 1900. Johnson agreed to deliver an address, but he wanted to offer something more personal as well. He initially hoped to write a poem about Lincoln, but decided he did not have the time to do it properly. He took the idea to his brother Rosamond, and they decided to write a song for the celebration that would be sung by a chorus of 500 school children. As in their previous collaborations, James would write the lyrics while Rosamond set them to music.

The ecstasy of creating

Johnson at his writing desk. Image courtesy of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture

Johnson wrote about his experience creating the song in his autobiography Along This Way. The first line, “Lift ev’ry voice and sing,” came easily, and he then set to work finishing the stanza. When these lines came to him, he realized “the spirit of the poem had taken hold of me”:

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

The lyrics spoke to both the travails black Americans had faced, and their resilience in striving for a better future. Johnson handed the first stanza over to Rosamond, who worked on the music at his piano in their LaVilla home. Rather than sitting down to write the other two stanzas, Johnson instead went outside to the porch. “While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all the agony and ecstasy of creating,” he wrote.

By the third stanza, Johnson found himself in a poetic euphoria, weeping as he crafted the lines. “Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment - that sense of serene joy - which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences,” he wrote.

Old Stanton High School. As principal, Johnson added the high school grades, making Stanton Florida’s first black high school. Image by Kyriaki Karalis

Subsequently, Johnson put all the lines down on paper and passed them to Rosamond. For his part, Rosamond succeeded in composing a melody and musical setting that perfectly complemented the words. When he finished the manuscript, Rosamond mailed a copy to the brothers’ publishers in New York asking for enough mimeographed copies for the choir.

The children learned the song, and their performance was a highlight of the celebration on February 12. The Johnson brothers moved to New York in 1901, and both the song and the Lincoln event passed from their minds. But as Johnson was later pleasantly surprised to learn, for the children of the choir, the song proved unforgettable. “The schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing the song; some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some became school teachers and taught it to their pupils,” he wrote. “Nothing that I have done has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being part creator of this song.”

Next page: The anthem spreads