Connecticut Public Radio features the library’s Harlem Renaissance–era materials

  • Hand-written sheet music titled "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing"; at right a small metal sculpture of a harp made up of standing figures with crouching boy at front
March 28, 2023

Beinecke Library curator Melissa Barton recently spoke with Ray Hardman of Connecticut Public Radio about the extensive holdings in the library’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.

After Johnson—writer, poet, and civil rights activist (1871–1938) —was killed in a car accident, his friend and fellow writer Carl Van Vechten donated materials to Yale Library to found a collection of African American materials in Johnson’s name. As Van Vechten promoted the collection, Barton explained, more donations soon followed.

In 1946, Johnson’s widow, Grace Nail Johnson, donated her husband’s paper, and the collection continued to grow, with donations from Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, and Richard Wright.

Today, Yale Library’s James Weldon Johnson Collection contains more than 13,000 volumes; 15,000 images; and numerous letters, manuscripts, and ephemera.

Among the many famous works in the collection is the music manuscript of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” The lyrics are the words of a poem Johnson wrote in 1900, set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, in 1905. The song, also known as the Black national anthem, was adopted during the Civil Rights Movement by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). It was performed last month at the opening of the 2023 Super Bowl in Arizona.

Also in the extensive collection is a miniature reproduction of a 16-ft.-high sculpture by Augusta Savage, inspired by and titled for the song. The work was commissioned for display at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

Listen to the segment on Connecticut Public Radio. Learn more about the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, which contains more about sculptor Augusta Savage and her work. View the collection’s more than 4,000 digitized objects.

—Deborah Cannarella

Image: (left) J. Rosamond Johnson. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” date unknown. Music manuscript. J. Rosamond Johnson Papers, Gilmore Music Library Special Collections; (right) Augusta Savage. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Harp,” 1939. Miniature metal reproduction of a sculpture designed for and displayed at the New York World’s Fair. James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by Judy Sirota Rosenthal, from the exhibition Points of Contact, Points of View, displayed at Hanke Exhibition Gallery, Sterling Memorial Library, March 14–August 14, 2022.