Located in Jacksonville FL, the Ritz Theater and Museum, is one of the finest museums in the country dedicated to African American history. Jacksonville is the home of many nationally known personalities including Ray Charles, A. Phillip Randolph, Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes and Zora Neale Hurston among others…Yet the center piece of the Ritz Museum is not an individual, but song.
“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, known as the Black National Anthem, the poem by James Weldon and music by Rosamond Johnson was written in 1900. One hundred and thirteen years and over five generations later, the songs popularity remains as resilient as never.
In 1896 the Plessy vs. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision delivered a crushing blow to African American aspirations for equality…Jim crow was up-held and segregation became Law of the Land.
“Plessy vs. Ferguson the most devastating blow to Africans Americans since the end of slavery.” W.E.B. DuBois
It was During the turmoil of Plessy vs Ferguson that the Johnson confronted the “jim crow” musical tradition in which the mention of slavery was forbidden, Blacks were always happy and whites were never to be portrayed in a negative light. Blacks could sing spirituals and gospel songs about the glorious hereafter, but never about the ugliness of slavery or its brutal aftermath. But the second verse lyrics of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing radically challenged that odious tradition of jim crow.
Second verse: Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing
Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast'ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place on witch our fathers sighed?
we have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our star is cast.
Words so powerful and rich with symbolism, that they were banned from being sung in some regions. The second verse became the lost verse
Contemporary jazz singers; Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”, Oscar Browns Jr “Bib Em In” and Nina Simone’s, “Four Women” would also smash the forbidden, but spiritual and gospel maintain a loud silence.
“Some things are painful to hear, but must be said.