James Weldon Johnson and the ‘Negro’ National Anthem
Adrienne Israel -Contributing Writer
February 2, 2007
Filed under Archives
Programs honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrating African-American History Month often end with the audience singing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the Negro or African-American National Anthem. James Weldon Johnson wrote its lyrics and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music 107 years ago; but neither man could have known that this song would become their most publicly appreciated work.
Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Fla., James Weldon Johnson grew up in a family headed by Bahamian immigrants who taught him to speak Spanish and to read the Victorian classics. Since Jacksonville only provided African Americans with eight years of segregated education, James took college preparatory courses at Atlanta University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1894. He returned to Jacksonville, and between 1895 and 1898, simultaneously served as principal of its “colored” school, published a newspaper for the African-American community, worked as an apprentice for a local attorney, passed the state bar exam and practiced law.
In 1900, he and his brother wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” for children to perform during a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the school where James Weldon Johnson was principal. The song was soon adopted by area churches.
Diplomat and Essayist
Intending to pursue a career as a songwriter, in 1902, James moved to New York with his brother and decided to study literature at Columbia University. He later joined the Colored Republican Club and, in 1906, was appointed to the U.S. Consulate in Venezuela. While he lived abroad as a diplomat, he wrote most of his first novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” first published anonymously in 1912. In 1914, he left government work to become an editor for the African-American-owned newspaper, The New York Age, for which he wrote essays protesting against segregation, lynching, and other forms of white-mob violence, and in which he published his poetry and the poetry of other African-Americans.
NAACP Field Secretary
In 1916, NAACP appointed him as its first field secretary, charging him with organizing branches throughout the country and investigating the alarming increase in brutality, repression, and terror against African-Americans. In 1920, when NAACP named him its executive secretary, he became the first African-American to hold the organization’s top executive post, a position he remained in for 10 years. During the 1920s, NAACP adopted “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as the “Negro National Hymn.”
Johnson quit working for NAACP in 1930 and became Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University.
During his long and influential literary career, Johnson edited, wrote, and published poetry, essays, fiction, literary criticism, and social history. Besides “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” his poem, “The Creation,” and other works from his collection, “God’s Trombones,” are still frequently performed and recited. In 1938, he died in a car accident in Maine.
Information for this article came from the following sources:
Herman Beavers, “James Weldon Johnson’s Life and Career,” http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/johnson/life, and “James Weldon Johnson,” by Kate Tuttle, in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1999).