You probably have heard of “Lift Every Voice”, the black National Anthem. Did you know that James Weldon Johnson who wrote it was the grandson of Haitians?
In his life story entitled Along this way: the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, the poet-journalist-attorney and Harlem Renaissance bastion wrote about his Haitian roots, which he traced to 1802 when French army officer and his Haitian mistress Etienne Dillet fled Haiti for Cuba with their children including a son Stephen Dillet. The boat was captured and Hester and Stephen and the other families on the ship were robbed by the British on the coast of the Bahamas, and the family ended up settling there. Stephen grew up to be really influential in the Bahamas and even had a post in the Bahamian National Assembly. Stephen would eventually marry Mary Symonett, a British-Bahamian woman, and their daughter Louise would eventually marry James Johnson (James Weldon Johnson’s father), by which time Louise was living in New York. There you have it! Feel free to re-read if the family tree seems to complicated at first!
Johnson had a huge interest in Haiti throughout his life, and in 1920 published the book The Conquest of Haiti: Articles and Documents, a collection of articles he had written for the publication The Nation, along others by fellow journalists about the U.S Occupation of Haiti that was in full swing at the time.
“Lift Every Voice” started off as poem written by Johnson. His brother John composed the music for it, but historians maintain that it wasn’t until the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement that it was adopted nationwide as the Black National Anthem.
Sheet music: Yale Archives