The words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, resounded throughout Battell Chapel in two performances Friday honoring the legacy of James Weldon Johnson, the hymn’s composer, on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The event, which featured 1,000 singing New Haven elementary and middle-school children during the morning performance, was organized by Willie Ruff, professor at the Yale School of Music, in an attempt to honor and publicize the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Arts and Letters housed in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
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Johnson was a poet, songwriter, teacher, lawyer and human-rights advocate during the early 20th century who became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Besides Johnson’s personal writings, the collection features handwritten manuscripts from Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
At Monday morning’s ceremony, Ruff recounted how Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, originally wrote and composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song was first performed in 1900 by 500 school children in Jacksonville, Fl., where Johnson was a teacher. In memory of King, Ruff tried to recreate that occasion — only with double the number of students — on Friday.
“It was a transforming experience,” Ruff said. “I have thought about this a long time. What it would feel like, sound like?”
Organized in conjunction with New Haven public schools, the 1,000 students at the morning event sang the anthem three times in a row and again at the end of the festivities. The song and event resonated with many of the children.
“We [first] learned the song in fourth grade,” said Andrea Salazar, an eighth-grade student at Nathan Hale School. “It’s talking about the hard times and bringing out a better future.”
Besides singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the event also featured a reading of King’s “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, which mentions Johnson; a reading of Johnson’s “God’s Trombones”; an interpretive dance by dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade; and musical performances by The Heritage Chorale and The Mitchell-Ruff Duo.
About 200 people attended the afternoon performance.
Ruff described singing the song in school while growing up and its effect on him. Today the song has become a staple of hymnals in many non-black Protestant churches.
“The song has become a song for all people with hope, dignity and aspirations,” Ruff said.
At the end of the night, the impact on the audience members of the music and Johnson’s history was apparent in the re-singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” New Haven resident Kevin DeShields said.
“When we first came together, the song was pretty faint, but by the end of the journey, after hearing the history [and singing it again], you could feel the transformation that it had on people,” he said.