// by Ron Whittington
At the NAACP Freedom March honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January, NAACP President Victor McLin led the crowd as they sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Reverend Joseph Lowery used the song’s third stanza during his benediction at the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama, and jazz singer Rene Marie caused a controversy a few years ago when she substituted the words of the song when singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at an event in Denver.
The song dubbed “The Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP years ago still resonates today, in large part due to the composition created by John Rosamond Johnson.
Although the younger brother of James Weldon Johnson had just as great an impact on the music industry as his brother did as a scholar and diplomat, his name and his contributions aren’t as well-known in Jacksonville as they are in New York City or London.
“Most of our visitors are not familiar with him at all, so when they find out more they’re really excited,” says Adonnica Toler, archivist at The Ritz Theater and Museum in Jacksonville. “John Rosamond Johnson was the first black to conduct an all-white orchestra in New York City. He was in charge of Oscar Hammerstein’s Theater in London. [In 1912, Hammerstein appointed Rosamond as musical director of his Grand Opera House in London, making him the first African American to serve in this capacity in a white theatrical company.] All of that is amazing. He had a lot of firsts as an African American.”
Toler says the foundation of Rosamond’s success (and James’, as well) was derived and nurtured by the brothers’ parents. Their mother, Helen Louise Dillet, was a native of the Bahamas and an opera singer before she married James Johnson and became a school teacher. Their father was a church deacon and later became an ordained minister. The family lived in LaVilla.
“Their mother was classically trained, so the Johnson brothers grew up in a house where culture was all around them,” Toler says. “But of the two, John was the musician and artist. Even as a small boy he played classical music on the piano.”
She notes that “Lift Every Voice” was originally meant as a poem, written by James to be read on Lincoln’s birthday at Stanton High School. It was Rosamond who, returning for a quick visit home from London and on his way to New York City, suggested to his brother that it be put to music and penned the composition.
Rosamond was trained at Boston’s New England Conservatory and then studied in London for a brief period before returning to Jacksonville, first working as a school teacher. By 1899, both brothers moved to New York to pursue a musical career. While his brother would return to his hometown and branch into several other noble endeavors, Rosamond remained firmly entrenched in the world of art and music until his death in 1954.
“His brother went on to many other things, serving as diplomat and a professor, but Rosamond stuck with being an artist,” says Hope McMath, executive director of the Cummer Museum. McMath became interested in the “Harlem Renaissance” several years ago through the work of Green Cove Springs artist Augusta Savage, but says she was never introduced to the history of Savage, nor the Johnson Brothers, while growing up in Jacksonville.
“Augusta was one the great artists from this area who migrated north to Harlem around the same time, and her life kind of parallels that of James and Rosamond,” she says.
McMath believes Rosamond had to have a huge talent to transcend the challenges that faced the black community in the early 1900s.
“Rosamond may be lesser-known than his brother, but he made such a name for himself in a part of the art world that most people to this day don’t associate with African-American artists,” she says. “When he went to New York, he was working on Broadway, with operas, with the New York Symphony…he fully embraced what are traditionally considered to be European art forms.”
Rosamond began his show business career along with his brother and another black songwriter, Bob Cole. The songwriting team wrote The Evolution of Ragtime (a suite of six songs) in 1903, produced two successful Broadway operettas with casts of black actors (Shoo-Fly Regiment and The Red Moon)—and also created and produced several "white" musicals including Sleeping Beauty and the Beast (1901), In Newport (1904) and Humpty Dumpty (1904). The prolific Rosamond also collaborated with J. Leubrie Hill to create Hello Paris in 1911.
“Unlike James and Bob, Rosamond did more than just compose music,” Toler says. “He could compose, sing and act, and did it all very well.”
Rosamond made his acting debut in the first African American show on Broadway (John W. Isham’s Oriental America), eventually getting leading roles in Porgy and Bess, Mamba’s Daughters, and Cabin in the Sky in the 1930s and 1940s.
Toler says Rosamond was part of group of actors called “The Fox,” who came together to support black actors on Broadway. “He respected all actors, black and white,” Toler says. “In fact, most white actors at the time wanted a Cole and Johnson song in their shows. Some said if they didn’t get one, they didn’t want to do the play. Actors, both black and white, hung out at their brownstone in New York, so they had a great appeal.”
Toler adds that while he was politically active, Rosamond “didn’t stand out as much as his brother.” One of his major accomplishments was founding a school in Harlem called the New York Music School Settlement for Colored People in 1918.
Along with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” his best-known composition, he wrote many songs himself—including “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes,” “Didn’t He Ramble,” and “Lil’ Gal, Since You Went Away.” With a string of original and expressive works, Johnson received international acclaim at the time. Over his lifetime, he arranged more than 150 spirituals and over 160 musical theater numbers. Even though his musical achievements came at the time Harlem was embracing African-American artists, McMath says Rosamond achieved “a really remarkable” level of success.
“He kind of transcended the politics of the day through his incredible talent,” McMath says. “When you read their biographies, both brothers spoke of their success as if they didn’t know how to do otherwise. As soon as the South started to work against them, they decided to go somewhere they could make a successful path and always knew that they would achieve success.”
McMath adds that J. Rosamond Johnson’s legacy lives on today, and that he’s more remembered in those circles than in his hometown. Toler agrees, saying she’s surprised to see the number of Ritz Museum visitors from outside Jacksonville who are well aware of J. Rosamond Johnson, nearly 60 years after his death.
“Some of the present-day Broadway stars who perform on our stage at the theater are excited to see our tribute to the brothers here,” she says. “Rosamond is still very well-known by people in those circles.”