As many stand proudly and sing the “Black National Anthem” (formerly “The Negro National Anthem”) from hymn books and printed papers at events across America, there are few that can tell you the name of who penned this song. There are less than that who think of the Gullah/Geechee Nation as they sing this song or hum along. However, Jacksonville, Florida which is the southern most point of the Gullah/Geechee Nation was the birthplace of both the lyricist and musical composer of this song, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. These were the sons of Helen Louise Dillet, a native of Nassau, Bahamas (daughter of Stephen Dillet the first non-white person ever elected to the Bahamian legislature), and James Johnson. Helen was a musician and the first Black public school teacher in Florida and James was a headwaiter at the St. James Hotel which was a luxury winter getaway in Florida.
Helen Louise Dillet taught school at Edwin M. Stanton school in Jacksonville, FL which is now on the US National Register of Historic Places. She had to have been proud when her son decided to follow in her footsteps and not only became a school teacher, but also the principal of the school. James William Johnson (who changed his middle name to “Weldon”) penned “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poem for the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In his autobiography entitled “Along This Way” published in 1933, he wrote “I got my first line:‐‐Lift ev’ry voice and sing, Not a startling line; but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines: 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 spirit of the poem had taken hold of me and I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond.”
John Rosamond Johnson studied classical music and had traveled the world playing it as well as participating in musical comedy. James stated that on the collaboration day: “While my brother worked at the musical setting, I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating…. I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by the contentment—the sense of serene joy—which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.”
James Weldon Johnson (back) and his brother John Rosamond, updated, photographed by ASCAP. James Weldon Johnson papers, Manuscript Archives, and Rare Book Library, Robert W. Woodruff, Emory University. 0797-004.tif
This experience led to an experience that neither could have imagined! A chorus of 500 students sang the song at the celebration which was to be a one time event. However, due to the awakening of the spirit of these words within the Gullah/Geechee and African American youth of Jacksonville, these students continued to sing the song each year even after the Johnson brothers moved to Harlem in New York and they traveled the world on diplomatic and musical missions and presentations. To their surprise, the song was taken by the students across the country and around the world as the children grew up and became teachers and then taught their students the song. This song is now in many hymnals in Baptist churches and sung by the “Black” community at an array of events every year. At the opening of any Gullah/Geechee festival, this song is usually sung as part of the unification of our people. Hunnuh chillun, keep liftin hunnuh voice togedda an sing til eart an hebun ring!