President Crutcher and students perform 'Lift Every Voice and Sing'

February 14, 2021

Black History Month

In the late 19th century, NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which his brother John Rosamond Johnson later set to music. It’s frequently referred to as the Black national anthem. 

According to the NAACP the song was first performed at a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1900 by “a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where James Weldon Johnson was principal.”

As part of UR’s celebration of Black History Month, President Ronald A. Crutcher and two Richmond students — sophomore Donte’ Thompson and senior Kobie Turner — performed the song at Camp Concert Hall in the Modlin Center. 

The initial plan was for Crutcher to perform “Lift Every Voice” on the cello, Crutcher said, but his instrument was in Boston at a violin maker. 

“I suggested that I sing a duet with Kobie,” Crutcher said. “I had heard him perform the national anthem beautifully at a basketball game. When I contacted his voice teacher, Professor Jennifer Cable, she informed me that Donte' Thompson, one of my mentees, also had a beautiful voice. So, I suggested that we perform as a trio.”

Thompson said he’s sung the song many times, but this performance felt different. “To have three African American males sing this as an a cappella trio really enhances the powerful meaning of this hymn,” he said.

Turner, a baritone for the Department of Music's Schola Cantorum, said the song has held importance for him since he performed it in elementary school. 

“I’ve always known how important this song was for Black people in general in America, and especially now the lyrics of this song still ring true,” Turner said. “I love the positive outlook this piece has while still reflecting on what has happened in the past. The mentality of taking from the past what is necessary to learn and what makes you stronger and bringing that into a bright new day is a very powerful mindset to have, and these words and the theme of the text has stuck with me to this day.”

Turner said the trio rehearsed the song once then performed the filmed version the following week. “Thanks to everyone, the planning, rehearsals, and recording session all went smoothly, and we were able to celebrate the joy of Black History Month with something that moves us all — art.”