Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

Radiating a Hope: Mary Cardwell Dawson as Educator and Activist

Academic journal article Journal of Historical Research in Music Education

Radiating a Hope: Mary Cardwell Dawson as Educator and Activist

Article excerpt

Mary Cardwell Dawson spent her adult life as an activist. (1) From 1926 until her death in 1962 her goal in every endeavor was to provide professional experiences for classically trained African American performers. She accomplished this goal in a number of ways, most of which were based in her fundamental belief that knowledge of the arts, particularly opera, and the performance of those arts by African Americans was an essential element in the culture of her people. She spent her life as a performer, educator, manager, promoter, and impresario, providing countless performers opportunities that would otherwise have been beyond their reach. Many contemporaries praised her efforts while other disparaged them, but it is undisputed that her efforts impacted the local African American arts communities in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York.

Mary Lucinda Cardwell was born in 1896 in Madison, North Carolina, the second of six children. Her family consisted of farmers, but several of them decided to move to the industrial north. Family stories speak of "trouble in the town," but the nature of the trouble, whether generalized within the community or localized within the family, remains unclear. What is certain is that Mary's father and uncle, through family contacts, obtained permanent employment at the Hobson and Walker Brickyard in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. With this move the brothers became part of the migration of African American labor that took place in the early twentieth century. (2) Their experience was typical. The brothers moved first around 1900 (family records do not indicate the exact date) and established a residence and employment history. After saving money for the move, they brought the remaining family members north approximately one year later. Once the entire family was there, Mary's father, J. A. Cardwell, bought a house on N. 20th Avenue in Homestead; the house has remained in the family since that time. The neighborhood was ethnically diverse with newly arrived African Americans from the southern states living side by side with immigrants from European countries. The diversity of the neighborhood would play an important role in shaping the attitudes of his children, particularly Mary.

Many members of the family were musically talented. J. A. was one of the leading singers in the church choir and often sang solos on Sunday mornings. He was protective of his voice, and often walked to church with a scarf flung around his neck to protect it in the winter. The children all sang as well, taking active roles in the musical life of the church.

Mary studied piano and organ with a local teacher, Mrs. Leafie White, before continuing her training at the New England Conservatory. Her reason for choosing this particular school is not documented, but it may be assumed that the cultural opportunities available in Boston were one of the attractions for the young singer. Conservatory records do not show when she matriculated, but she was older than the traditional college student. It is apparent that she did not leave for Boston until at least 1920, at the age of 24. The reason for the delay was economic: the tuition was a sacrifice for which the family had saved for many years. Tuition at the Conservatory represented a significant percentage of a laborer's salary. For this same reason only Mary and her sister Catherine, of all the siblings, graduated from college. There simply were not funds to send all of the children. Mary's talent was judged to be the strongest and she went to school first.

Her studies at the New England Conservatory included the traditional theoretical courses and performance studies in voice, piano and organ. However, she also studied choral conducting and stage production, two areas essential to her professional pursuits. She paid close attention to the professional music scene, attending concerts whenever possible. It was clear the discrimination practiced throughout American society at the time was problematic for an aspiring performer. …

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