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New Haven School Children Sing “Black National Anthem” in Celebration of Songwriter James Weldon Johnson


New Haven, Conn. — A chorus of 1,000 New Haven school children singing the inspiring “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” popularly known as the “Black National Anthem,” will be the first of two events at Yale on April 4 celebrating the life and spirit of the song’s writer, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and the rich collection of African American arts and letters at Yale’s Beinecke Library that bears his name.

The morning performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will take place at 10:30, with New Haven Public School children filling Yale’s Battell Chapel, at the corner of Elm and College streets.

The celebration of Johnson’s legacy will resume at 7:30 p.m. in Battell Chapel with renowned dancer Carmen de Lavallade’s performance and recitation of Johnson’s poem “The Creation.” Other highlights of the evening event include performances by the famed Mitchell-Ruff Duo and the Connecticut-based community chorus Heritage Chorale. The event coincides with the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which will be marked by the recitation of King’s 1967 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” by actor Ken Robinson of the Yale School of Drama. Another chorus of “Lift Every Voice” by 300 school children will complete the evening tribute to the songwriter.

The 7:30 p.m. event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They are available at the Yale School of Music box office, in the lobby of Sprague Hall, 470 College Street. Mon–Fri, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event is hosted by the Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale, with support from the Yale School of Music, the Yale University Provost’s Office and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Novelist, poet, lawyer, early civil rights activist and educator, Johnson was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a pivotal period of intellectual, political and cultural foment, from which much of the distinctly African-American art, literature and music of the 20th century dates. Johnson grew up in Florida, the son of a waiter and the first female black teacher in that state. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature at Atlanta University, and was the first African American to pass the bar in the state of Florida. In 1906 he became the American consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, and in 1909, consul in Corinto, Nicaragua. In 1920, he was appointed executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His works include: “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1920), “The Book of American Negro Poetry” (1922), “God’s Trombones” (1927) and “Along This Way” (1933).

Johnson wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954).

The April 4 performances are being presented in recognition of the extensive James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale in the Beinecke Library, founded in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten. The collection is renowned for its holdings of masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance, including the original manuscripts of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man” and “God’s Trombones.” Also to be found among the papers, correspondence, art and memorabilia that make up the Johnson Collection are the doctoral thesis of W.E.B. Dubois, with notes by William James; music by Fats Waller and W.C. Handy; and Van Vechten’s photographs of such stage and screen notables as Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Alvin Ailey and Ethel Waters—to name only a few.


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