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Guest colimn/Remembering the man behind ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

February 24, 2013
By DELORES WIGGINS , The Herald-Star

From 1619, when the degradation of slavery began, African-Americans have always kept a song within their hearts. It was prayer and the song - the Negro spiritual - that was so fulfilling, offering tremendous motivation to keep the faith alive.

As we sing today, the spirituals, hymns, gospels, soul gospels, jubilee gospels, blues, etc., it is always with so much fervor, until all people throughout this world have noticed our singing. This was passed down by our ancestors, to which we are so thankful.

James Weldon Johnson, a very gifted musician, wrote many poems, books, journals and songs. His career spanned more than 40 years as a public servant and community leader.

The greatest phenomenon of his musicianship is his writing of the lyrics of the song that is known as the Negro national anthem (hymn) - "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, to Helen L. Dillet and James Johnson in Jacksonville, Fla. He was an American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter and early civil rights activist. Johnson is remembered best for his leadership within the NAACP, as well as for his writing, which includes novels, poems and collections of folklore. He also was one of the first African-American professors at New York University. Later in life, he was a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.

Johnson was first educated by his mother, a musician and a public school teacher, the first black female teacher in a Florida grammar school, and then at Edwin M. Stanton School. His mother imparted to him her considerable love and knowledge of English literature and the European tradition in music. At the age of 16, he enrolled at Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1894. He later received an honorary master's degree in 1904.

The achievement of his father, who was headwaiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment in Jacksonville, gave young James the wherewithal and the self-confidence to pursue a professional career. He was also a prominent member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

He served in several public capacities during the next 40 years, working in education, the diplomatic corps, civil rights activism, literature, poetry and music. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson as the U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, from 1906 to 1908, and at Nicaragua from 1909 through 1913.

In 1910, Johnson married Grace Nail while he was stationed in Nicaragua, when he was working as a songwriter.

What meant the most to Johnson was going to a rural district in the backwoods of Georgia to instruct the children of former slaves.

At the age of 35, he became principal of Stanton, a school for African-American students in Jacksonville. Later, Stanton became the largest public school in Jacksonville. For his work, Johnson received a paycheck less than half of what was offered to a white colleague. However, he improved education by adding the ninth and 10th grades. Algebra, English, composition, physical geography and bookeeping were a part of the added ninth-grade course.

In 1897, he was the first African-American admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. In 1901, he moved to New York City with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, to work in musical theater. Along with his brother, he produced such hits as "Tell Me, Dusky Maiden," and "Nobody's Looking but the Owl and the Moon."

Johnson composed the lyrics of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which was originally written for a celebration of Lincoln's birthday at Stanton School. Sung by all black students, this song would later become adopted by the NAACP as the Negro national anthem. Johnson's brother wrote the music.

Johnson's most famous book was "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man."

"Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

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; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won."

(Wiggins, a resident of Steubenville, is the president of the Ohio Valley Black Caucus Inc.)

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