About the Holiday
National Freedom Day commemorates February 1, 1865, the day President Abraham Lincoln signed a joint U.S. House of Representatives and Senate resolution that outlawed slavery. This resolution became the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865. Major Richard Robert Wright Sr., a former slave, founded the National Freedom Day Association and was instrumental in creating a formal national day of remembrance. The first celebration of National Freedom Day took place in 1942, and in 1947, a year after Wright’s death, the U.S. Congress passed a bill marking February 1 as National Freedom Day. The proclamation was signed into law on June 30, 1948 by President Harry S Truman. The holiday led to Black History Day, which was later expanded to Black History Month.
Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the African American National Anthem
Written by James Weldon Johnson | Illustrated by Elizabeth Catlett
It has been 120 years since James Weldon Johnson, a principal at Stanton Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote a poem to be used in the school’s commemoration ceremony of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. His brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music. On February 12, 1900, five hundred students performed the song. From that celebration, the song spread, gaining in popularity throughout the South and then throughout the country.
In 1949 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing as the official African American anthem. The song continues to inspire as it is sung and heard in churches and schools and during times of celebration and protest.
This new edition of Lift Every Voice and Sing brings together Johnson’s stirring poem with stunning black-and-white linocuts by Harlem Renaissance artist Elizabeth Catlett, who created them in the 1940s as part of a series of artworks focusing on black women.
The book opens with these joyful lines punctuated with powerful images. On the first page a woman strums a guitar while beside her there is the image—perhaps it’s a memory or the subject of her song—of a black man being attacked by a klansman while a cross burns nearby. On the second page is a picture of Sojourner Truth with her left hand on a lectern that holds a Bible and her right, index finger extended, pointing skyward. In her eyes there is sadness and confidence and knowledge. “Lift ev’ry voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring, / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; // Let our rejoicing rise / High as the listening skies, / Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”
The poem continues with the exhortation to sing with the faith and hope learned from the past and present. A linocut of black women sitting on a bus behind the “colored only” sign, created by Catlett in 1946, is compelling for its truth and foresight, especially when paired with these lines. But knowing there was still much to do, Johnson encouraged his listeners: “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun / Let us march on till victory is won.” On the left-hand page Harriett Tubman points the way to freedom for escaping slaves—one couple carrying their belongings and their baby—along the Underground Railroad.
The song remembers the “stony road” and the “chastening rod” and also the “steady beat…” of “weary feet” that have brought them to a place for which their forefathers died. Johnson sees a brighter future, and Catlett’s linocut of Phyllis Wheatley, a child when she became a slave, writing one of her poems while three women chained together step into the light her example showed. Catlett’s original caption for this piece read: “I’m Phyllis Wheatley. I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery.”
The poem then goes on to appeal to God, “who has brought us thus far on the way” to keep them in the right path and in His hand so that “…may we forever stand. True to our GOD, True to our native land.”
Author/illustrator Ashley Bryan—a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Award winner for Freedom Over Me—provides a poignant Foreword. A short description of the project Elizabeth Catlett undertook after winning a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant and her original captions for each linocut included in the book as well as the music for Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing follow the text.
An emotionally moving presentation of James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson’s poem and song, Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the African American National Anthem would make a beautiful thought-provoking and inspirational addition to school, home, and public library collections.
Ages 6 – 12 and up
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1681199559
You can learn more about James Weldon Johnson and read several of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website.
To learn more about Elizabeth Catlett and view some of her artwork, visit the Artnet website.
Discover more about Ashley Bryan, his art, and his writing, visit the Ashley Bryan Center website.
National Freedom Day Activity
Freedom is a precious right—one that can be represented in different ways by each person. For today’s activity use a brick, paving stone, large stone, or molded plaster of Paris and decorate it with a picture or design that means freedom to you. Then put it in a special place—in a garden, near your front or back door, in your room, or in another spot—where it will remind you of freedom’s gifts.
- Brick, paving stone, large stone, plaster of Paris
- Plastic gems, bead, or other small objects
- Strong glue or other adhesive
- Paint brush
- Create a design that shows what freedom means to you or an object that represents freedom to you
- Paint your stone with the design, let dry
- Add gems, beads, or other objects
- Display your Freedom Stone
You can find Lift Every Voice and Sing at these booksellers
Picture Book Review