Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shaping Uplift through Music

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shaping Uplift through Music

Article excerpt

Doris Evans McGinty and others have documented the corps of black musicians and educators who embraced the repertoire of western European composers as a means to facilitate a self-help philosophy known as racial uplift propelling African-American upward mobility after Emancipation. This paper continues her work on the Washington Conservatory, a privately funded music school for black students that was located in the once-affluent black U-Street neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (McGinty, 1979). I hoped to discover how the conservatory's founder, Harriett Marshall, shaped the rhetoric of racial uplift through music. I was especially curious about the motivations behind some of Marshall's more adventurous projects to celebrate black concert music as high art.

Without a doubt, Harriett Gibbs Marshall (1865-1941), was an ambitious leader in the field of black music education during the first half of the twentieth century. The school she founded in 2903, the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expression, was the first black-owned and operated institution of its kind in the country. After Marshall passed away in 1941, her cousin Victoria Muse kept the school open until her death in 1960. The building became the property of Howard University for many years, after which it was purchased by a private investor interested in restoring it. Those intentions were never realized, and its fate is currently in limbo as city planners discuss whether to raze the entire neighborhood or preserve it as an extension of the historic U Street district one block away. During its heyday, however, the Washington Conservatory was a hub of black music educators and artists (including Duke Ellington, who enrolled in harmony classes at the conservatory), and the school was one of the first to promote the study and performance of black concert music.

It is no wonder that Harriett Marshall figured prominently in McGinty's narratives that describe black women musicians as pioneers who expanded their spaces of existence by stepping into roles and identities ordinarily denied their color and gender. "As Large As She Can Make It" seems to describe the ethos behind all of Marshall's efforts to advocate for a black American intellectual authority to define black musical expression, if not also black professional identity, through music. From her plans to expand the conservatory into a National Negro Music Center, to the provocative statements she crafted to frame black concert music as high art, Marshall challenged the boundaries of race and gender, first for herself, then also for her community of peers, students, and patrons. In her quest to articulate a distinctly black musical aesthetic, Marshall ultimately came to celebrate the music of non-Western cultures as evidence of a unified global musical expression shared by all ethnicities. A tireless pedagogue, she also co-founded a girls' school in Haiti in the 1920s, produced pageant-style events showcasing black music, and, years before the official founding of the National Association of Negro Musicians (N.A.N.M.), attempted to create a guild of black musicians.

Although Marshall's work certainly reflects (if not models) themes commensurate with the familiar principles of racial uplift, to discuss Marshall's work as shaping that rhetoric is to probe beyond simple classification of her actions as categorically "uplifting." Her work as an institution builder was a form of resistance, generated from within a cultural milieu that had long been the exclusive domain of Anglo-European white male practitioners. And yet, Marshall did not describe her work in terms of resistance per se, nor does she seem to have interrogated the assumption that uplift was either warranted or welcome, or even the most effective means by which African Americans as a group could attain socioeconomic parity with whites. When she embarked upon her career at the end of the nineteenth century, educated African Americans perceived their collective ambition as naturally predestined to lead the future well-being of black American society. …

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