We celebrate Black History Month every day of February. One of those days of reflection, February 12, is also the birth date of Abraham Lincoln. Here’s a true story about how Black History Month and Lincoln’s birth date hold hands.
The Johnson brothers were at the beginning of their careers in 1900. James Weldon Johnson became principal of Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1894, at the age of 23. He went on to study law, and was the first African American to be admitted to the Florida Bar.
John Rosamond Johnson, known as J. Rosamond, studied music at the New England Conservatory of Music and in Europe in the 1890s. In 1901, he moved to New York City to work in musical theater as composer, singer, actor, and founder of the Music School Settlement for Colored People in Harlem. But it was while the Johnson brothers were residing in their hometown of Jacksonville that they collaborated to write a song that remains significant and powerful more than 100 years after its birth.
James Weldon Johnson wrote poems, and J. Rosamond Johnson frequently set his brother’s words to music. One of the first songs they created was for the Stanton School’s celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900. Five-hundred students united their voices, and the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” eventually known as the Black National Anthem, sounded in air for the first time.
In 1935, James Weldon Johnson wrote
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 from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, and 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 other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.
Follow these links to a few of the many “Lift Every Voice and Sing” library resources, including two illustrated song books, a celebration in print of the song’s 100th anniversary, printed music, and a recorded version.