Jacksonville’s multi-faceted James Weldon Johnson wrote the stirring hymn that has become a part of American life.

By Craig Pittman

On a warm and wet September evening last year, the first football game of 2021 was about to start. The two teams lined up on the field at Raymond James Stadium, each in their respective end zones—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on one side, the Dallas Cowboys on the other.

Before the National Anthem, they listened to a different song, one that some call the Black National Anthem. It was a live rendition by the Florida A&M University’s Concert Choir of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

This was far from the first NFL game to feature the song. The NFL played an Alicia Keys recording of it before the start of all of its Week 1 games during the 2020 season, as well as ahead of Super Bowl LV and the draft in April.

The place where the anthem means the most, though, is Jacksonville, the Florida town where it was written and first performed more than a century ago.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…

The author of those stirring words was a Florida man, and a remarkable one.

The list of professions that James Weldon Johnson held is lengthy. In addition to being a songwriter, he was an educator, a novelist, a poet, a lawyer, a baseball pitcher, a diplomat and a civil rights activist. And he did all that as a Black man navigating a post-Civil War world set up to extend white supremacy.

“He was a Renaissance man,” says Liz McDonald McCoy, executive director at the Friends of James Weldon Johnson Park. Creating a park in his honor is one of the ways his native city has honored its most famous resident in recent years.

Johnson was born in 1871 in the Duval County town of La Villa, later annexed by Jacksonville. His father was the headwaiter at a hotel and pastor of a small church. His mother was the daughter of the first Black man elected to the Bahamian legislature, and she had become the vice principal of the segregated Stanton School. Johnson attended Stanton until he was 16. He had one brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who he referred to by his middle name, and an adopted sister.

Johnson’s father taught his children Spanish, which helped when he let a Cuban exchange student stay with the family. When the teenaged Johnson took the train to Atlanta University, the exchange student went along. A conductor was ready to evict them from the “whites-only” section of the train until he heard them speaking Spanish to each other. That was Johnson’s first encounter with racism.

In Atlanta, Johnson became a star pitcher for the university baseball team, a prize-winning orator and a skilled woodworker. When he graduated, he was offered a scholarship to Harvard, but he turned it down to return home to Jacksonville and become the principal of his alma mater. He pushed for the school to add high school classes, making it the first high school in Florida to provide classes for Black students.

In 1895 he founded the Daily American, Florida’s first African-American newspaper. In 1897, without ever setting foot in a law school, he passed the Florida Bar, becoming the first Black Floridian to do so.

Then, in 1900, for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, he penned the inspirational poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” His musically inclined brother, Rosamond, composed the tune to turn those lyrics into an anthem.

Johnson was not a fan of anthems. He often heard them in church, and even ones written by his brother stirred his dislike. In his 1933 autobiography, Along This Way, he joked that “it would not be gross injustice to give the composers of most anthems written for church choirs a light jail sentence for each offense.” But this one was born of necessity.

Johnson was scheduled to give a speech for Lincoln’s birthday. He thought about writing a poem about Lincoln, too. But he couldn’t compose both in the short time available before the ceremony, he confessed in his autobiography.

Then he had the idea of writing a song, to be sung by a Stanton children’s choir. An anthem, in fact, with lyrics by him and music by his brother. The two had no great ambitions for the song, he wrote later. They regarded it as “an incidental effort, an effort made under stress and with no intention other than to meet the needs of a particular moment.”

After that famous opening—which he judged “not a startling line”—Johnson continued on “grinding out the next five.” Then he came to the end of that stanza, where it says, “Sing a song full of the faith that our dark past has taught us/Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”

At that point, he wrote later, “the spirit of the poem had taken hold of me.”

He turned the first stanza over to his brother to compose the music while he kept going on the next two. As he paced back and forth, “I could not keep back the tears, and I made no effort to do so,” Johnson wrote. “I was experiencing the transport of the poet’s ecstasy.”

Finishing the lyrics gave him a feeling of “contentment—that sense of serene joy—which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences.”

Rosamond jotted down the musical score and then contacted a publisher he knew in New York to get it copyrighted and printed. Then the copies went to the children’s choir members to memorize.

“A choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal, first performed the song in public,” the NAACP notes on its website.

This should have been a time of triumph for both brothers. Instead, they soon left their native city, driven out by a near-death experience.

It happened in the wake of Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901, explains Dr. Wayne Wood, historian at large for the Jacksonville Historical Society.

A spark from a small wood-burning stove caught some Spanish moss on fire as it dried outside a mattress factory. Over the next eight hours the blaze spread through 146 city blocks, destroying more than 2,000 buildings, killing seven people, and leaving almost 10,000 people homeless.

Atlanta University Quartet

Johnson tried to convince the white firefighters to save the Stanton high school, Wood said. After all, the school was big enough to house Black families who were burned out of their homes. But the firefighters, looking dazed by the scope of the blaze, ignored his pleas and let the building burn, Wood says.

In the wake of the fire, Jacksonville had no civil authority. Instead, militias from all over the South converged on the city to impose martial law. Suddenly the city where Johnson was known and recognized, the city with a reputation for treating Blacks fairly, was a smoking ruin, and its streets were full of armed white strangers. They saw only his skin color.

A female journalist from the North came to visit the burned-out town. She had written a story about the fire and wanted Johnson’s opinion about the piece. Johnson met with her in a riverfront park. She was Black, with lighter skin than Johnson’s darker complexion.

As they talked, Johnson wrote later, he became aware of men yelling and dogs snuffling around nearby. Uneasy, the pair got up and started back toward downtown—only to be stopped by armed men in uniform. A streetcar conductor had reported seeing Johnson, a Black man, consorting with someone who appeared to be a white woman.

“They seize me,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography. “They tear my clothes and bruise my body, all the while calling to their comrades, ‘We got ’im!’” Meanwhile, Johnson wrote, he could hear the crowd yelling things like, “Kill the black son of a bitch!”

“As the rushing crowd comes yelling and cursing, I feel that death is bearing in upon me,” Johnson wrote later.

Before he could become one of the 4,400 Black Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1945, though, an officer intervened. He placed Johnson under arrest and took him to the provost marshal of the town. The provost marshal happened to be a member of the Florida Bar and recognized Johnson as a fellow attorney. He believed Johnson when he said the journalist was not legally white.

Johnson was released.

At first, Johnson was ecstatic about escaping his predicament. When he got home, the only person he told about what happened was his brother, who was horrified. Only then did Johnson fully appreciate the horror himself. The memory didn’t recede after one night.

“For weeks and months, the episode preyed on my mind and disturbed me in my sleep,” he wrote. “Shortly after the happenings just related, Rosamond and I decided to get away from Jacksonville as quickly as possible.”

They traveled to New York, where the pair composed hundreds of songs for Broadway shows. One of those songs, “Under the Banyan Tree,” was performed 40 years later by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis.” They helped to ignite the Harlem Renaissance that later would bring to prominence Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.

Johnson became treasurer of the Colored Republican Club in New York and wrote songs that advocated for the election of his fellow New York Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. That, according to Jacksonville activist and former senator Tony Hill, led Roosevelt, as president, to appoint Johnson as the United States consul to Venezuela, in effect making him the ambassador. Three years later, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, named him to fill the same role in Nicaragua.

While he was a diplomat, Johnson married Grace Nail, the light-skinned daughter of a wealthy Black real estate magnate from New York. “Her delicate patrician beauty stirred something in me that had never been touched before,” he wrote of his first sight of her. After they wed, she learned Spanish and joined him in civil rights advocacy, as well as serving as a hostess for cultural gatherings in their home. They had no children and remained a devoted couple until his death.

Kirk Franklin and his choir

Diplomacy left Johnson time to write, and in 1912 he published anonymously a provocative novel titled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. For its narrator, Johnson created a light-skinned biracial man who, after witnessing a lynching, makes the choice to pass for white. He republished it in 1927 under his own name, and it caused a sensation.

That was the same year he also published a poetry collection called God’s Trombones, in which he finds rhythmic beauty in the language of Black preachers delivering sermons. Both books remain in print to this day.

In 1916, Johnson left the world of diplomacy for the field of advocacy. He became a field secretary for NAACP, which at the time was a white-led civil rights group based solely in Northern states. He expanded the organization into the South, adding thousands of new members, and advocated for a federal anti-lynching law.

He also organized more than 10,000 marchers in the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade of 1917. The march became “the first major street protest staged against lynching in the U.S.,” according to historian Anthony Siracusa of the University of Mississippi.

In 1920, Johnson became the NAACP’s first Black executive secretary, cementing Black control of the civil rights group. He used that position to fight against segregation and voter disenfranchisement.

After a decade leading the NAACP, he resigned to teach creative writing at Fisk University in Nashville. In 1934, Johnson became the first Black professor at New York University. It was his last first. He died in 1938 at the age of 67 when he was riding in a car driven by his wife when the car was hit by a train. He was killed and she was seriously injured.

But his anthem, the one he wrote four decades earlier with his brother, lives on.

First came the children—the 500 Jacksonville youngsters who memorized all the words.

Although both Johnsons left town the following year, “the schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing it,” Johnson wrote in his autobiography. “Some of them went off to other schools and kept singing it; some of them became schoolteachers and taught it to their pupils.”

The song spread like the wildfire that had scorched so much of Johnson’s hometown.

“Within 20 years, the song was being sung in schools and churches and on special occasions throughout the South,” Johnson recounted “In traveling round, I have commonly found printed or typewritten copies of the words pasted in the backs of hymnals and the songbooks used in Sunday schools, YMCAs and similar institutions.”

In 1929, the NAACP officially adopted it as the “Negro National Hymn,” giving it an official role in marches, graduations and celebrations. It is routinely sung as part of Martin Luther King Day ceremonies.

If you search YouTube, there are versions by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Melba Moore (featuring Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder, among others), an a cappella solo by John Legend, a soulful duet by Al Green and Deniece Williams. As part of her popular “Homecoming” concert at Coachella, Beyoncé sang it. Perhaps the most moving version is one recorded in 2020 by gospel guru Kirk Franklin and his choir.

And now the NFL, under fire for its racial disparity in hiring and promotions, has made it a part of televised football games, spreading a song commonly known among the Black community to white audiences who are likely not as familiar with its soaring rhetoric. The release of former Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden’s racist, misogynist emails guarantee the song will be around for at least another year.

The song is so potent that in 2021, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., filed a bill that would declare it to be the national hymn for every American. If passed, the bill would put Johnson’s song on the same level as the “Star Spangled Banner” in the hope it would help unite the country after centuries of racial turmoil.

“Nothing that I have done,” Johnson wrote, “has paid me back so fully in satisfaction as being the part creator of this song.”

Craig Pittman

Native Floridian Craig Pittman for decades covered environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times, winning state and national awards. He writes a weekly column for the Florida Phoenix and co-hosts the popular “Welcome to Florida” podcast. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country”, and the new “The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife”. In 2020, he was declared a Florida Literary Legend by the Florida Heritage Book Festival. 

FORUM Spring 2022 Cover

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.