The Brothers Johnson write an anthem

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, February 12, 2020

On today's date in the year 1900, the principal of Stanton Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida was asked to give a Lincoln's Day speech to his students. Stanton was a segregated school for African-American children, and was the school that its principal, James Weldon Johnson, had himself attended. Johnson decided he would rather have the students do something themselves, perhaps sing an inspirational song. He decided to write the words himself, and enlisted the aid of his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who was a composer.

"We planned to have it sung by schoolchildren, a chorus of 500 voices," Johnson recalled. "I got my first line, 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"—not a startling first line, but I worked along, grinding out the rest." Johnson gave the words to his brother as they came to him, not even writing them down as his brother worked at the piano. By the time they finished, Johnson confessed he was moved by what they had created: "I could not keep back the tears and made no effort to do so."

The song was a great success on February 12th, 1900, and then was pretty much forgotten by Johnson—but not by the children who sang it. They memorized it. Some of them became teachers, and taught it to their students. The song spread across the country, and soon became the unofficial National Anthem of Black America.

"We wrote better than we knew," said Johnson.