Lift Every Voice and Sing: History of the Hymn
The song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ originated from a poem written by civil rights activist, lawyer and school principal James Weldon Johnson in the 1900’s. According to theGrio, the poem was first recited by 500 school children at the all Black Staton School in Jacksonville, Florida as a tribute to President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. At the time, Johnson introduced the famed educator Booker T. Washington on his visit to the school with this poem.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the song was adapted to a hymn with help of James Weldon Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, a classically trained composer. Later, in 1920, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was adopted by The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the Black National Anthem.
Both Johnson brothers then relocated to New York to test their skills as writers for Broadway show-tunes. Among their travels, Washington began endorsing the tune ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, causing it to rise in popularity.
According to the NAACP, James Weldon Johnson wrote about the rise in popularity of his tune in 1935. Johnson said, “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.”
To this day, the song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ holds up to its legacy. It continues to be sung across the nation as a celebratory anthem during Black History Month and other cultural celebrations.
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