African American Studies at Beinecke Library

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, Beinecke Collections, Events by beineckepoetry on March 27, 2008


The Duke Ellington Fellowship at Yale, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Yale School of Musi, and the Yale University Provost’s Office present “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a performance in honor of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Beinecke Library.

Friday, April 4, 2008, at 7:30pm at Battell Chapel. Featuring hundreds of New Haven school children singing Johnson’s historic anthem, dancer and actor Carmen de Lavallade, actor Ken Robinson, the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, and the Heritage Chorale.

This event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required; tickets available at the Yale School of Music box office, in the lobby of Sprague Hall, 470 College Street. Mon-Fri, 9 am to 5 pm. Information: 203 432-4158 •

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 performance is 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.

Images: Carl Van Vechten’s photograph of Augusta Savage’s sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing”; James Weldon Johnson photographed by Carl Van Vechten; cover of Langston Huges’ Weary Blues; Ethel Waters photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

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Jubilee Singers

Posted in African American Studies at Yale, Beinecke Collections by beineckepoetry on March 11, 2008

The Jubilee Singers were established in 1871 by Fisk University treasurer George L. White to raise funds for the newly-opened university. The group included eleven students—all former slaves—and two advisors who traveled the country and, eventually, across the Atlantic, performing; they became very well known and they were invited to perform for the President of the United States, the Queen and Prime Minister of England, among many others. They sang sacred hymns and Negro spirituals, dubbed “slave songs,” with an eye not only to earning money for their alma mater, but also to building up positive representations of African-Americans and African-American performance for the concert-going public. The proceeds from their first years of touring were enough to build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on the Fisk campus, still standing today.

Taking advantage of their acclaim, other groups toured the nation as “Jubilee singers.” Some of these groups followed the Jubilee Singers’ precedent of presenting strong positive images of African Americans, but most were bands of minstrels who appropriated the identifier “Jubilee” without adopting the Singers’ constructive principles.

The Beinecke Library has various documents relating to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, including the Story of the Jubilee Singers, a broadside advertisement of their second tour of Britain, and promotional documents for competing groups from other Southern states. The records for these documents can be found in Orbis, the Yale Library catalog, and in the library’s Uncatalogued Acquisitions Database. In addition, the Library has materials relating to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and to other Jubilee organizations including programs for performances by the Norfolk Jubilee Singers and the North Carolina Singers of Shaw Collegiate Institute, as well as a novel of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Chariot in the Sky, by Arna Bontemps, whose literary archive resides in the Library. (JS)


Images: Books and ephemeral publications related to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.