Two centuries ago, a man sat in the hold of a British naval vessel, unsure if his country’s flag would survive the night, or if the young republic for which it stood would last much longer.
But on Sunday, 200 years after the dawn’s early light revealed to Francis Scott Key that the star-spangled banner yet waved, citizens gathered at the Rock Hill City Hall Plaza to sing the words Key jotted down that morning, the birthday of the national anthem.
Dr. Kelly Pew, superintendent of the Rock Hill school district, told Key’s story to a crowd that spanned from veterans to schoolchildren, how he wrote what would become “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a poem to mark the Battle of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Key, held captive on a British ship bombarding the fort on the coast of Maryland, waited anxiously on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, to see whether the American flag was still flying over the fort, and the words he wrote about the land of the free soon became a popular diddy throughout the home of the brave.
“That victory song eventually became our national anthem,” Pew said.
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The school district decided to mark the patriotic anniversary together with the city of Rock Hill’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, the York County Library and the Culture and Heritage Museums of York County. Sunday’s festivities, which included singing and music, games and flag-waving, grew out of two elementary school music classes.
“Melissa and I started talking about this last year, and then we talked to the district people who talked to the city people, and it just grew from there,” said Terri Westphal, music teacher at Finley Road Elementary and one of the organizers of the event. “It grew from a little idea into this big giant thing today.”
Melissa is Melissa Burroughs, the music teacher at Lesslie Elementary who shares Westphal’s love of the classic song.
“This (the anniversary) was just an excuse to focus on it,” Burroughs said.
“We’re both passionate about it. We teach it every year,” Westphal added. “We just wanted to make it a little bigger this year.”
Sunday’s event leaned heavily on the historical component. On the lawn beside Black Street, children had a chance to play the sort of games that would have been popular in the early 19th century, while inside the library activities included face-painting and learning to turn a quill into an ink pen. A re-enactor dressed like an 1812 soldier fired an antique musket to salute the anniversary.
Burroughs and Westphal teach elementary school students about the national anthem, but the anthem’s bicentennial featured participants from all three of the district’s high schools. The South Pointe band played a medley of patriotic songs, Rock Hill High’s ROTC cadets presented the colors, and the Northwestern Troubadours took center stage to sing the big song itself.
“I got the call from Ms. Westphal asking if we would participate, and when I mentioned it to the students at the start of the school year, they were thrilled,” said T.J. Williams, Northwestern’s choral director.
The 60 students in the Troubadour chorus had only a few weeks to gear up for their bicentennial performance and until this week had only sung at a few Northwestern sporting events.
“This was probably their first real public performance,” Williams said. “I thought their presentation was fantastic today.”