Western University at Quindaro, Kansas, was probably the earliest black school west of the Mississippi (1) and the best black musical training center in the Midwest for almost thirty years during the 1900s through the 1920s. This was at a time when such education was not easy to find in a safe environment for young black ladies. To be sure, families farther east could send their talented musical daughters to several excellent music schools in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, the first major white school to admit black students, opened its doors in 1865. (2) Its first black woman graduate was Harriet Gibbs Marshall, who founded the Washington (D.C.) Conservatory of Music in 1903. In 1867, four other white music schools also were established: Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, Cincinnati Conservatory, and the Chicago Musical College. Fisk University, founded in 1866 in Nashville, Tennessee, made its name in music thanks to concerts and tours during the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers under director George L. White. Howard University, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1867, offered music classes in its normal school and developed a strong music department at the turn of the century. Women graduates of those institutions went on to establish careers, serve on faculties of many schools, and found black music conservatories of their own.
Western University, despite its history as a state-run normal school, then a theological seminary under the wing of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and a state-run industrial training institution inspired by Booker T. Washington's doctrine of Negro self-help, remained little known until a certain Robert G. Jackson arrived to spearhead its music department in 1903. (3) In no time at all, a rigorous training program was developed and a music building added to its campus. Most important from a recruiting standpoint, the Jackson Jubilee Singers, in the spirit of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Hampton Jubilee Singers, and a host of other spin-offs, began touring the United States attracting students far and wide. Talented musicians, both male and female, came to study and teach there. It was among the female students that the most illustrious of its alumni emerged. (4) Among the many women whose careers and talents had their first encouragement at Western University, Nora Douglas Holt, Eva Jessye, and Etta Moten Barnett are the most easily recognized. They were truly pioneers who changed America and made an impact on the history of blacks in the music and entertainment industry that is felt in many ways to this day.
With this perspective, I look here more deeply into the origins, maturity, and demise of this midwestern black middle-class phenomenon and explore how the school enabled Jessye, Holt, and Barnett to establish their groundbreaking careers.
During the 1850s and 1860s, Quindaro Bend, six miles upstream on the Missouri River from what would become Kansas City, provided a natural concealed harbor for slaves escaping from Missouri. A farmer named Abelard Guthrie owned much of the land in the vicinity and helped the slaves to safety along the Underground Railroad. His wife, named Quindaro, (5) was a Wyandotte Indian and had persuaded her tribe to sell the land to her husband. A short-lived but thriving boomtown of free-state settlers had grown up there in the mid-1850s, but by the beginning of the Civil War, the town had dwindled, leaving an all-Negro community. The admission of Kansas to the Union as a free state in 1861 came at the cost of conflicts between pro- and antislavery settlers and of many skirmishes, battles, and massacres (causing it to be labeled "bleeding Kansas") and is considered one of the inflaming issues that led to the Civil War. Although Kansas was a free state and gave Negroes the vote, most of its citizens were not free of racial prejudice and opposed Negro inclusion in public education. …