Jul 9, 2021

The Vanishing of Harry Pace: Episode 6

Lift Every Voice. 

Black Swan Records was first to record the anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. From a family's Thanksgiving dinner, we portal through to the song's past, present, and future.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace was created and produced by Shima Oliaee and Jad Abumrad. 

This series was produced in collaboration with author Kiese Laymon, scholar Imani Perry, writer Cord Jefferson, WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, and WNYC's Jami Floyd. Based on the book Black Swan Blues: the Hard Rise and Brutal Fall of America’s First Black Owned Record Label by Paul Slade. Featuring interviews with Pace's descendants and over forty musicians, historians, writers, and musicologists, all of whom grapple with Pace’s enduring legacy.

Thank you to young Miles Francis and his family for bringing our Thanksgiving scene to life. 

This episode features the book May We Forever Stand written by Imani Perry, all about the Black National Anthem.

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The Vanishing of Harry Pace - Episode 6

JAD ABUMRAD: From the top - ready?


JAD ABUMRAD: This is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, the miniseries on RADIOLAB - Jad Abumrad here with...


JAD ABUMRAD: All right - one...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

JAD ABUMRAD: ...Name - good. This is the (laughter) final episode of the series. We told stories about Harry Pace, Black Swan Records, Ethel Waters, Roland Hayes. We're going to end the series with the story of a song.

SHIMA OLIAEE: One record to rule them all. Can you share your name and titles?

IMANI PERRY: My name is Imani Perry. I am the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This story came to us from Imani Perry. You've heard her throughout the series.

IMANI PERRY: Oh, so sweet.

Race is not something that is. It's something that happens.

I don't know what Kiese is talking about. This looks like a Black man to me. I don't know what he's talking about.

JAD ABUMRAD: Her perspective and work has been a real guide for us. And this story comes - well, it begins with one of her books, "May We Forever Stand."

SHIMA OLIAEE: You shared at the start of your book that your son learned the song, and you were surprised. Can you describe...


SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Your discovery of him doing the song?

IMANI PERRY: My son was 5 years old when he came home singing this song. Yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She says she came into his room one day. He was sitting on the floor playing with his toys.

CHILD: (Humming "Lift Every Voice And Sing").

SHIMA OLIAEE: And he was humming it.

IMANI PERRY: I was like, where did you learn that? (Laughter) And he said, at school. And I said, do you know what it is? And he said, it's the Black national anthem. And I was surprised because, you know, I just didn't anticipate that - you know, he had a great music teacher. I didn't anticipate that they would be teaching the song in...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Was his school predominantly Black or white? Or was it...

IMANI PERRY: It was predominantly white. It's just a...


IMANI PERRY: ...You know, kind of progressive, liberal private school. But I also knew that he didn't - he couldn't possibly have understood the full gravitas of the song.

PAUL SLADE: I guess, in a way, this is probably Black Swan's biggest claim on the historical record.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Journalist and author Paul Slade.

PAUL SLADE: June 1923.


MANHATTAN HARMONY FOUR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing.

PAUL SLADE: Released on Black Swan by a band called the Manhattan Harmony Four - actually, on the label, it says Negro national anthem or national Negro anthem.



PAUL SLADE: That is the version that's now actually held in the National Recording Registry - so clearly very significant.

JAD ABUMRAD: But your son didn't really know what it was at that point.


SHIMA OLIAEE: But then on Thanksgiving holiday, something happened.

IMANI PERRY: So when we went home to Alabama for Thanksgiving, you know, we all come to my grandmother's home. We're all sitting in the den. And I should say, my family is very large. My mother is one of 12. All of her siblings have children. We came of age sleeping many people to a bed. It's a three-bedroom house. It's not a big house. So the room is so full, there's - it's sort of, like, standing room only, right? And we gather in the den, which is, like, the TV room. And this is commonplace in Black Southern culture. You know, you ask kids to stand up and perform.

CHILD: Do I have to?

IMANI PERRY: And so I said, why don't you stand up and sing the song?


IMANI PERRY: So he stood up, and he...

CHILD: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...

IMANI PERRY: ...Began to sing.

CHILD: (Singing) ...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.

IMANI PERRY: And immediately my aunts and uncles and my mother - everybody stands up and starts to sing with him.

FAMILY: (Singing) Sing a song.

IMANI PERRY: I think it was my Aunt Thelma (ph) who was the first one to raise her fist. And then everybody in my family raised their right fist. And his eyes grow, you know, big like saucers, and I'm moved. It was this sort of moment when he could feel what it meant to say that that song was the Black national anthem.

FAMILY: (Singing) Till victory is won.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Imani says she looked around the room.

IMANI PERRY: My grandmother had recently passed, and I thought her presence is still around. So in some ways, we had four generations of Black adults singing it together.

JAD ABUMRAD: And that is kind of strange.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In that living room, Imani wondered, how is this song speaking so strongly across four generations? And will it continue...

IMANI PERRY: I mean, and that's why I had to write "May We Forever Stand," you know? It's, like...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Throughout time?

IMANI PERRY: ...This is something that everybody deserves to know.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So Imani wrote a book. And one of the first things she discovered is that the power of the song throughout time, you can see the seeds of that in the song's creation story. That story starts with a guy named James Weldon Johnson.

IMANI PERRY: James Weldon Johnson...



IMANI PERRY: ...Was born...


JAMES WELDON JOHNSON: How would you have us?

IMANI PERRY: ...A couple of years after the Civil War.


JAMES WELDON JOHNSON: As we are or sinking 'neath the load we bear?

SHIMA OLIAEE: This is a recording of him reading a poem.


JAMES WELDON JOHNSON: Our eyes fixed forward on a star or gazing empty at despair?

IMANI PERRY: And he is extraordinary. James was ultimately one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a novelist, a very distinguished poet and an educator.

JAD ABUMRAD: So he sounds like one of these, like, swashbuckling Harry Pacian (ph) kind of guys.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Like an I-can-make-anything-possible kind of Renaissance man of his time.

IMANI PERRY: Absolutely. And really, you know, in the context - in the post-Reconstruction - I mean, well, really, I should say in the post-slavery context, there was this enthusiasm amongst Black Americans, particularly those who were - who had access to education to, like - to build a place in history, to record all that they had achieved because, you know, Black people were people who were seen as not having history, not having any culture of any worth. So he was among that vanguard that were saying things like, we have to record our music. We have to record our sermons. We have to write down everything.

JAD ABUMRAD: So it's 1900.

IMANI PERRY: Jacksonville, Fla.

JAD ABUMRAD: James Weldon Johnson is the principal of a school, a school for Black children that was set up after the Civil War. And in January of that year, a couple of students come up to him and ask him if he would help them out. These kids wanted to celebrate Lincoln's birthday, which was the following month - February of 1900. And they asked him if he would write an address for the celebration.

IMANI PERRY: So he sits down to compose this poem, and something happens in the process. And he doesn't fully elaborate this when he remembers it, but he decides not to honor Lincoln.

SHIMA OLIAEE: If you could get into his head, what do you think he was thinking at the time?

IMANI PERRY: OK. So James is kind of an irreverent person. I'm sure he was one of the people who was like, I mean, Lincoln didn't even like Black people, right?


IMANI PERRY: I mean - right? I mean, I think, you know - and I'm sure he thought, you know, he's a racist, and I want to do - well, and it's true. I mean, you have to think about - James Weldon Johnson is comparable to someone like W. E. B. Du Bois.


IMANI PERRY: He's like a hard-core intellect. And so, you know, I think he's like, I'm going to say who really - the people who really are the heroes in this story. The Civil War wouldn't have been won without Black soldiers, right? This is not Lincoln freed the slaves. It's not - that's not the story. No. I'm thinking he's like, I'm going to tell the real story. So he, you know, starts to compose...

READING: Lift every voice and sing...

IMANI PERRY: ...This poem.

 ...Till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod. God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It's a poem about the past, the present and the future.

JAD ABUMRAD: No mention of Lincoln.


Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

IMANI PERRY: The first singing of the song...

CHOIR: (Vocalizing).

IMANI PERRY: ...Is 500 schoolchildren.

CHOIR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring.

IMANI PERRY: When there was an event at a school...

CHOIR: (Singing) ...Harmonies of...

IMANI PERRY: ...Everyone would come...

CHOIR: (Singing) ...Liberty.

IMANI PERRY: ...Family, friend.

CHOIR: (Singing) Let our rejoicing rise...

SHIMA OLIAEE: So the whole community comes out.

IMANI PERRY: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

CHOIR: (Singing) ...Listening skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

IMANI PERRY: So they set it to music, and the 500 schoolchildren sang it.

JAD ABUMRAD: And Imani says it might have gone nowhere; you know, been just a nice recital. But then, a couple months later, something happens that scatters the song far and wide.

SHIMA OLIAEE: That's after the break.

This is The Vanishing of Harry Pace, a miniseries on RADIOLAB. Where we last left off...

JAD ABUMRAD: James Weldon Johnson writes this song in 1900. Five hundred kids sing it - must have been quite a moment. But after the recital, people generally go on about their lives.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But then something happens in Jacksonville that scatters the song far and wide.

JAD ABUMRAD: And just for context, at this point in history...

IMANI PERRY: Jacksonville was - it was not as violent as other parts of the Deep South because it was a resort community at the time. People went there to have a nice time and didn't want to experience lynchings and violence and the like.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was a little bit of this protective bubble where the harshness of the rest of the South didn't really apply.

IMANI PERRY: But then in 1901, there is this great fire in Jacksonville that burned a lot of the city. There is a fire that begins at a mattress factory in LaVilla, a Black neighborhood in Jacksonville. It's a beautiful neighborhood. It's a relatively prosperous neighborhood. Should I read a portion about James - what James says about the fire?

JAD ABUMRAD: She read us from James Weldon Johnson's memoir.

IMANI PERRY: (Reading) We met many people fleeing, James recounted. The fire is travelling directly east over the district where the bulk of Negroes in the western end of the city live. The firemen spend all their efforts saving a low row of frame houses belonging to a white man named Steve Melton, but the fire chief allowed Black-owned homes to burn.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Essentially, the fire department let seven miles of Black Jacksonville burn.

IMANI PERRY: After a mere eight hours, 10,000 people were homeless, and 2,368 buildings were gone.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. Ten thousand people lost their homes because they were just trying to save one white guy's property.


JAD ABUMRAD: That's insane.


IMANI PERRY: James reflected on Jacksonville in his youth in somewhat romantic terms. He thought of it as this sort of wonderful refuge. And it's a sort of, I think, rude awakening, right? There's no protection. Here is this ever-present, immediate possibility that one literally cannot protect oneself against. After the fire...

SHIMA OLIAEE: James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamond.

IMANI PERRY: ...They leave home...

SHIMA OLIAEE: Heartbroken.

IMANI PERRY: ...And go to New York. They start these sort of new lives.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And they're not the only ones. So many of the kids that were at that recital, they and their families - they leave, too.

IMANI PERRY: People are moving out of Jacksonville. So there is this organic spread of the song.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Like seeds in the wind. So now you have all of these kids and all of these new cities singing the song within their homes, and the mothers pick up on it.

IMANI PERRY: Almost immediately, all across the South, Black women who are in women's civic organizations began to share the song through their organizations. The women's groups and churches - they're pasting "Lift Every Voice And Sing" in the back of hymnals. Letters to editors, you know, articles in newspapers - they're the ones who say, this is an anthem.

JAD ABUMRAD: The first call for it to be the Black national anthem was 1901, just a few months after that fire.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Fast-forward to 1919. The NAACP gets involved. And just a few years after that...


MANHATTAN HARMONY FOUR: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till Earth and heaven ring.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Harry Pace presses it onto a record.

IMANI PERRY: That's also meaningful because the United States doesn't have a national anthem at that point, not until 1931.

JAD ABUMRAD: Oh, wow. So this is, like, almost 10 years before the U.S. makes "The Star-Spangled Banner" the official song.

IMANI PERRY: Oh, yeah.

SHIMA OLIAEE: From that point on...


ANNOUNCER: The Black national anthem.

KIM WESTON: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...The song went into overdrive. You heard it at civil rights marches.


MARTIN LUTHER KING: James Weldon Johnson put it eloquently.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Martin Luther King referenced it before the summer March after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. James Brown...


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing till Earth and heaven ring.

SHIMA OLIAEE: He hacked it into a singing of the national anthem at a Muhammad Ali fight.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) And the home of the brave.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It keeps coming up again.

IMANI PERRY: The resilience of "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is truly unparalleled. Like, there are moments when people said, well, here's another anthem of Black America.


SINGER: (Singing) We shall overcome.

IMANI PERRY: "We Shall Overcome."


FUNKADELIC: (Singing) One nation, and we're on the move.

IMANI PERRY: "One Nation Under A Groove," or...


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Young, gifted and Black.

IMANI PERRY: "Young, Gifted And Black." Nina Simone was like, choose my song instead, you know, which - as much as I love that song, no. "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is - it's the song that was there before the heyday of the civil rights movement and there to turn to after it was done.

JAD ABUMRAD: Why that is didn't fully click for us until we met up with this guy.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Named Emmett G. Price III, professor of worship church and culture, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

JAD ABUMRAD: In addition to being a scholar who knows all about Harry Pace and Black Swan, he's also writing a book about "Lift Every Voice."

SHIMA OLIAEE: You deliver sermons here.


JAD ABUMRAD: And he took us to church, his church in Boston. And we sat around the piano. And he explained to us while playing that one of the reasons the song has attached itself to so many different generations, very different generations, is that there's something essential baked into the song's structure and its lyrics.

EMMETT G PRICE III: I mean, you know, the first verse is a articulation of aspiration.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Lift every voice and sing.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Let's remember that lynching was about muting the voice.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Till Earth and heaven ring.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Right? This notion that this thing is much bigger than us...

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Ring with the harmonies of liberty.

EMMETT G PRICE III: ...Is supposed to be we the people.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Let our rejoicing rise.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Don't sing down.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: High as the listening skies.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Lift the songs up.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Let it resound loud as the rolling seas.

EMMETT G PRICE III: The seas of the mighty Atlantic Ocean that brought all of us here through the Middle Passage.

JAD ABUMRAD: So the first chunk of the song captures the spirit of optimism. It's in a major key. It's about hope, rising up. But then...


SINGERS: Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

IMANI PERRY: Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Things shift.


SINGERS: Sing a song...

SHIMA OLIAEE: It becomes minor.


SINGERS: ...Full of the hope that the present has brought us.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Kind of a march, almost.

EMMETT G PRICE III: And then you go to verse two, stanza two. The second verse is a reminder, internal reminder of where we've come from.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Stony the road we trod.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Stony roads with bare feet - right? - are brutal.

IMANI PERRY AND EMMETT G PRICE III: Bitter the chastening rod.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Their rod where people were getting beat with, right? The bitter of the sting.

IMANI PERRY: Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.

EMMETT G PRICE III: Hope unborn had died. It died a premature death before it even was possible to be birthed. So

SHIMA OLIAEE: So in the first two verses of the song, you have a kind of juxtaposition between hope and horror, almost this balanced tension in a way - hope, horror, hope, horror in a tug of war. And then...

EMMETT G PRICE III: Now we pray.

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...You get to the resolution.

EMMETT G PRICE III: I mean, the third verse is a prayer.

IMANI PERRY: God of our weary years.

EMMETT G PRICE III: God of our weary years.

IMANI PERRY: God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on the way, thou who hast by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet...

I mean, I think the song - it carries you through the range of emotions, right? The ascent, the hope, the achievement and then the plodding, the struggle, the depth.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She says that arc, from having hope to having it crushed to somehow finding a way forward.

IMANI PERRY: The arc is sort of the arc of Black life, period. You know, every generation sort of experiences that arc in one way or another and every individual.

CHILD: (Singing) Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

JAD ABUMRAD: So getting back to the living room, she suspects as they were all there singing together, everybody in her family was having their own personal flashback.

IMANI PERRY: You know, my mother talks about going to the bakery and buying day-old bread, right? She was born in the '40s. And you had to walk through a white neighborhood to do so. And the second they entered the neighborhood, the residents would sic their dogs on them. So they had to run all the... so they're running through white neighborhoods, being chased by dogs.


SHIMA OLIAEE: What about you? What was going through your mind at that moment?

IMANI PERRY: I mean, it was a montage of imagery. I have such distinct memories of being a little girl in Alabama in the '70s and everyone having large afros, wearing dashikis, the kind of bold assertion of Black is beautiful and Black pride. But when we moved on the block where we live, we were the third Black family to move on that block. And, of course, soon thereafter, there was white flight, and the whole block was Black except for one older white man on the block. And he would put up a sign that said zoned for whites because it had originally been zoned for whites. So the boys from the neighborhood would walk by, kick down the sign on the way to school. And he would put it back up. But there was this choreography. And at the same time, the man who will be the first Black mayor, Richard Arrington, who was my parent's boss at Miles College - the political establishment is shifting, but there's still these horrific episodes of police violence. There's a prison organizing movement happening, mass incarceration. So in that moment, the kind of fuzzy images of my world of the '70s in Alabama kind of melded with the power fist.

JAD ABUMRAD: She says all that was going through her mind as she was looking at her son singing the song. But when we asked her what do you think he was thinking...

IMANI PERRY: OK. So this is a great question because as you all know, now, he doesn't remember that moment. And I - for me, it's an unforgettable moment.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

IMANI PERRY: I just - I'm kind of undone...

SHIMA OLIAEE: (Laughter).

IMANI PERRY: ...Because it wasn't something that he, like, held onto forever.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Here's where we get to an open question. Will the song attach itself to Imani's son's generation the same way it did for her and her mother's and her grandmother's and her great-grandmother's?

IMANI PERRY: I gave a talk years ago at Stanford and to an African American studies class, which was largely Black students. And none of them knew this song.

JAD ABUMRAD: Why do you suppose that is?

IMANI PERRY: We don't - as Americans generally, like, we don't belong to a lot of organizations anymore. We don't have this sort of...


IMANI PERRY: ...Highly networked daily life. And so you can't find it, right? For lots of 20-year-olds, young people, they don't sing it all the time, right? And then there are parts of the country where it never really, like, had the same hold anyway. But I do know this - for both of my sons, you know, coming of age in this era is - has been complicated, you know? Their first sort of...


BARACK OBAMA: All the workers who organized...

IMANI PERRY: ...Memory of a president was Obama...


BARACK OBAMA: Yes, we can to justice and equality.

IMANI PERRY: ...And the sense of triumph of that moment.


CROWD: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

IMANI PERRY: And then they also lived with...


IMANI PERRY: ...The constant repetition of video footage of Black people being killed by police officers.


GEORGE FLOYD: Momma, I love you.

IMANI PERRY: And because we're in the digital era, that - it has played over and over again. And so often, there's no warning. So they have seen many Black people killed.


ARCHIVAL: I know that's what you want to do. I'm not scared of you, bro.

IMANI PERRY: So they have an acute sense of injustice and fear...


PROTESTORS: Black lives matter. Black lives matter.

IMANI PERRY: ...And also this sort of...


ARCHIVAL: The possibilities are unlimited.

IMANI PERRY: ...Insistence that they should feel as though the world is open to them. But they know how profoundly unfair it is - and then, the Trump era.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She worries that young people today are being bombarded by messages of extreme hope and extreme despair. And they're left stranded in between...

IMANI PERRY: ...Without a kind of anchor. In a sense, this is a harder world. I mean, it's a part of, you know, James Weldon Johnson's genius of his composing the song. But, like, if we ever needed something like that, it's now.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing...

JAD ABUMRAD: Imani Perry's book on "Lift Every Voice And Sing" is called "May We Forever Stand."


BEYONCE: (Singing) ...Till Earth and heaven ring.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we should say, the song is maybe making a comeback - maybe?

SHIMA OLIAEE: Beyonce did a cover a few years ago. It's getting hacked into the national anthem again. And it's now being sung at the start of NFL games, which people have mixed feelings about.

JAD ABUMRAD: Understandably. And of course, just last week, Vanessa Williams sang it at the White House.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So who knows? Maybe it's back for another round.

JAD ABUMRAD: What we do know is that 98 years ago, as Black Swan Records was imploding, Harry Pace seared the song onto a record for the first time, froze it in place. And that record is now at the National Recording Registry.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So thank you, Harry.


JAD ABUMRAD: The Vanishing of Harry Pace was written, produced and edited by me and Shima Oliaee, the Osm Audio team. This series is presented as a collaboration between Osm Audio - that's osmaudio.com - RADIOLAB and Radio Diaries. The series is based on the book "Black Swan Blues: The Hard Rise And Brutal Fall Of America's First Black-Owned Record Label" by Paul Slade.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Our editorial advisors are Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Cord Jefferson and Terrance McKnight. Jami Floyd is our consulting producer. Our fact-checker is Natalie Meade. Series artwork was created by Katia Herrera.

JAD ABUMRAD: A very special thanks to the Francis family - Valerie (ph), Badei (ph), Zoe (ph) and...

MILES FRANCIS: I'm Miles. And I play Freeman Plare (ph).



JAD ABUMRAD: ...And Miles. Thanks also to Mac Premo and Little Wing Lee...

SHIMA OLIAEE: ...Celia Muller, Sahar Baharloo, Theodora Kuslan, Andrea Latimer, Michelle Xu, Mike Berry, Maya Pasini-Schau, Rachel Lieberman and Kim Nowacki.

JAD ABUMRAD: And we had music in this episode from the Liberty Middle School. OK. Jad and Shima signing off.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We salute you all. 


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