- Nina Kennedy
Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing: A Call for Justice
As some of you already know, I have recently signed a contract with a publisher for the release of my first book of memoirs. Also, as I wrote in my last blog, I was recently asked to participate in a panel discussion presented by the Harry T. Burleigh Society during its conference titled "More Than the Promise of the American Myth: Rethinking Burleigh & (Ella) Sheppard in the Second Gilded Age." Other participants on the panel included the descendants of composers Harry Burleigh, Ella Sheppard, W.C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole. The Fisk Jubilee Singers - whose concert the Burleigh Society presented the night before at Carnegie Hall - had included my father's arrangement of the spiritual "Steal Away" on their program. So it seemed fitting to include me in a conversation on the handling of copyrights and the preservation of historic recordings, as I had produced a documentary film on my father's life along with its soundtrack CD.
It is one thing to have an awareness of the racism and discrimination that my own parents endured; but to sit on a panel with descendants of other survivors of American racism simply intensified my emotion. Ella Sheppard's father, for example, was able to purchase his own and his daughter's freedom from their master, but was not allowed to purchase his wife's (Ella's mother's) freedom. The family was divided because of the whims of their white owners. Ella's mother was sold to a plantation in Mississippi, and her father died soon after they arrived in Ohio after escaping race-riots in Nashville; so she knew extreme poverty and starvation. She was able to make a life for herself after returning to Nashville as a composer, arranger, member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and eventually becoming a member of the Fisk faculty. Years after the end of the Civil War, she found her elderly mother in Mississippi and brought her back to Nashville to live in her home.
We are still struggling to make sure that Ella Sheppard receives credit for her work, since her name did not appear on many of her arrangements. I suppose she considered herself to be an employee of the Fisk School and the Jubilee Singers, and did not think in terms of royalties or credit as composer or arranger in perpetuity. (Was a single black woman even able to open a bank account back then?) Wikipedia repeatedly removes material that I have included in her article, because they claim there is not enough "historical evidence." The struggles of black women never end!
Harry Burleigh's grandfather also had to purchase his own freedom. His daughter (Harry's mother) was a school teacher, but was denied a teaching position in her home town of Erie, Pennsylvania because of her race. She taught, however, at the local Colored School for many years. She also worked as a maid to make ends meet. Burleigh sang the spirituals that had been arranged by Ella Sheppard, and sung and recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, whose melodies he ultimately utilized in his Symphony "From the New World". Dvořák received tremendous compensation and fame for his composition. Not so for Ella Sheppard or the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
W.C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole enjoyed fame and success as composers of musicals, ragtime hits, and vaudeville tunes. (Bob Cole, however, suffered from clinical depression and ultimately committed suicide.) J. Rosamond Johnson, along with his brother James Weldon Johnson, composed the famous "Negro National Anthem" Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. In spite of institutionalized racism and legal segregation, these men were able to leave sizable estates to their descendants.
My parents, on the other hand, pursued careers in classical music. The doors controlled by symphony orchestras, concert artist managers, and classical concert agencies were repeatedly slammed in their faces. Early in my mother's career she had been engaged to appear as piano soloist with her home town orchestra in Charleston, West Virginia. A few months before the concert was scheduled, the conductor who had engaged her died suddenly, and was replaced by an avowed racist who cancelled her contract. This broke her heart. My father said that she never fully recovered from this.
While in college I briefly studied with American pianist Natalie Hinderas (born Henderson) who took a Spanish-sounding name to keep classical audiences from knowing that she was African-American. She, too, had been engaged to appear as piano soloist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. But when the symphony board saw her picture and realized that she was black, her contract was cancelled.¹
And now that we all finally know about jazz pianist Don Shirley - that his first love was Chopin, and his manager Sol Hurok refused to engage him as a classical soloist. Later in his life, Shirley was enraged at white America. "They wanted me to wear overalls, a red bandanna, and a straw hat! That's what they tried to do to me!" said the musical genius about the cover artwork for his album.
My parents desperately needed to believe that times had changed and that the doors that had been closed to them would open for me. Such was not the case in this country. Granted I managed to secure more orchestral engagements than they had, but the doors to the major artist management firms were still closed. I have seen former Juilliard schoolmates - some of whom were barely qualified - enjoy success and fabulous salaries simply because they were white men. American audiences are being cheated because of old, out-dated thinking. Some of our best and brightest talents are not being heard today because of a pervasive racism that is now being exacerbated under the Trump administration.
Today I am writing this in the aftermath of another "not guilty" verdict of the police officers in Sacramento who murdered another unarmed, innocent, African-American man. My anger is boiling over. This country needs to step up and face the injustices that She has perpetrated on Her own people.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for details surrounding my book launch. That book is gonna be a doozy!
¹ "Dallas Symphony Bars Natalie Hinderas," Jet Magazine, March 13, 1958.