Edmund Jenkins of South Carolina

By Green, Jeffrey | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Edmund Jenkins of South Carolina


Green, Jeffrey, Black Music Research Journal


Edmund Thornton Jenkins was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1894, one of the eight children of Lena James Jenkins and her husband, the Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins. They had established the Orphan Aid Society in 1891, better known as the Jenkins Orphanage. As well as their own children, they took responsibility for over five hundred waifs and strays. Most were placed in a farm-reformatory in Ladson, near the city, where they grew vegetables and obtained a basic education. Others were lodged in the Old Marine Hospital on Franklin Street, Charleston, and there were taught to read and write, and in practical skills which, while destined to support them when independent adults, provided the orphanage with revenue. These included bread making, jobbing printing and a weekly newspaper (the Charleston Messenger), shoe repairs, laundry, and music making. Choirs, up to five bands, jubilee singers, and girl duos and trios brought attention to the orphanage through public performances, traveling to Florida, as well as to New York and elsewhere in the North. They gathered alms and practical support, and collected one quarter of the funds required to keep the institution solvent. The city eventually provided some money, reaching $1,000 a year in the 1910s--for the orphans were black, and city, county, and state were white-run and almost blind to the needs of the African Americans who made up half of the state's population at that time.

Skillfully negotiating between Charleston's powerful white elite and the extreme poverty of so many of his people, the Reverend Jenkins was an exemplary figure to the youngsters. Black-led churches had leading roles in Southern life, as did charitable Northerners who founded, funded, and taught at many of the region's black colleges and schools. The elite among the African Americans of Charleston attended Avery Institute, and had lessons in the Eurocentric tradition. Edmund Jenkins went to Avery, then to the Atlanta Baptist College in Georgia (later Morehouse College). Already able to play violin, piano, and trumpet, Jenkins came under the influence of music tutor Kemper Harreld and future author Benjamin Brawley when in Atlanta.

Harreld, whose wife Claudia taught German, classics, and piano in Atlanta, was fully conversant with European art music. Born in 1885 in Muncie, Indiana, he had moved to Atlanta in 1911 to head the music department. Edmund Jenkins was his favorite pupil. Historians have investigated African-American music with an emphasis on jazz and blues and as a consequence the contributions and values of musical people like the Harrelds have been overlooked. In their house were violins, cellos, a viola, and a piano as well as much sheet music. The college had many instruments, and its president John Hope had two sons who played the clarinet and the trombone. Harreld and other residents of black Atlanta gave music lessons privately. Claudia's brother Lucien White was the music critic of the well-respected New York Age (Green 1990, 179-181).

Among the works that were part of the Harrelds' collection as well as that of the college orchestra (which Harreld conducted and included Jenkins on violin), were the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Born in London in 1875, the son of a Sierra Leonean doctor, Coleridge-Taylor's fame started when he was at the Royal College of Music in the 1890s, and his choral work Song of Hiawatha (1897-1900) entered the repertory of singing groups all over the English-speaking world. Harreld, when living in Chicago, met and worked with him during a 1906 tour, and his creations were included in programs performed by several of Harreld's Atlanta concert and choral groups (Green 1990, 193; McGinty 2001, 221).

This understanding of orchestral music, the several instruments that he had mastered, and his experience in helping with the orphanage bands formed Edmund Jenkins, who traveled to England in May 1914. He was a member of the orphanage band, employed to entertain at the Anglo-American Exposition in London. …

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