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African American Voices in Early Boston


Roland Hayes

Music and poetry can be means of resistance, and they also play a role in uniting diverse groups. Boston’s early heritage of African American scholars, writers, and musicians make the city an interesting subject for artistic and historical inquiry in these challenging times.


The first Africans arrived in Boston in 1638, and the city became very active in the slave trade. By 1700 there were more than 400 enslaved African Americans in Boston, with the beginnings of a free Black community in the North End. At mid-century, the British mainland American colonies had a population of approximately 1.5 million. Each year 3,500 captives arrived from Africa and the Caribbean, so nearly one in five Americans, or 300,000 people, were enslaved.

Lucy Terry Prince (c1730-1821) was a gifted speaker and the first recorded African American author of a poem (“Bars Fight,” see the full poem HERE), describing the last Indian massacre in Deerfield, MA in 1746, where she worked as a household slave in from 1735-1756. The poem became part of local oral tradition and was finally published in 1855 in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts. Prince later moved to Vermont, where she became the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (winning a land dispute); two of her sons enlisted in the Continental army in Massachusetts, and the Vermont Heritage Songbook includes a children’s song about her life.

By the end of the 1760s, free Blacks and escaped slaves made up 10% of Boston’s population (of 16,000), settling in the North End and on the north side of Beacon Hill. In nearby Newport, Rhode Island, African Americans (both enslaved and free) created America’s first Black-led community organization, the Free African Union Society (1780), despite many southern planters maintaining summer residences and large slave estates in the state.

Literary prodigy Phillis Wheatley (c1753-1784), educated and enslaved in a prominent Boston household, was the first published African American writer (Poems on Various Subjects, 1773). HERE is her poem “On being brought from Africa to America.”  Wheatley’s literary career, as well as her relationship to the Congregationalist tradition in which she studied (she attended the Old South Meeting House), was marked by Boston’s persistent racial inequality and its contrasting public support of human equality and republican government.

Her 1773 collection contains a poem HERE on the topic of freedom to William, Earl of Dartmouth, whom she had met in London. Wheatley knew Dartmouth to be a friend of the abolitionist Countess of Huntingdon and of the late Reverend George Whitefield, who had helped launch the Great Awakening in which Methodists and the Baptists welcomed converts of all races but seldom challenged slavery.

Singing hymns formed a crucial part of educational and evangelistic efforts in New England, becoming the most attractive element of revival meetings. Native people and African Americans shared a preference for emotional group singing and religious exhortation that pre-dated Christian contact, so they adapted and repurposed European models with their own. Phillis Wheatley was aware of these efforts, and from 1765-1774, she wrote to the Reverend Samson Occom (1723-1795), a Mohegan tribal leader who became a Presbyterian minister, supporting his vociferous criticism of slave-holding Christian ministers. Read the text HERE.

The first published Native author, Occom edited and compiled the groundbreaking A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1774), for which he wrote six poetic hymn texts. Richard Allen (1760-1831), a former slave converted upon hearing a Methodist preacher rail against slavery, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church and compiled the first African American hymnal in 1801 (A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns), followed by The African Methodist Pocket Hymn Book (1818). These three collections show the first evidence of attaching a “wandering refrain” to a hymn text composed by an author, a practice which became typical of nineteenth-century camp meeting songs and White gospel hymns.

Wheatley’s life inspired Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and he included her story in his recorded pageant “The Glory of Negro History,” released by Folkways Records in 1955 (listen HERE). Her poetry has been set music by African American composers W.C. Handy (Unsung Americans Sung, 1944), Aldolphus Hailstork (Triumph in My Song for SATB chorus, 2003), and Marvin Mills (On Virtue, 2007, see the text HERE and video HERE). Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson (1951-), a 1974 student of Gunther Schuller at the Tanglewood Music Center, collaborated with playwright Ed Bullins to compose a children’s opera based on Wheatley’s life (The Mystery of Phillis Wheatley, 1976). “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry: Something like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley” is a moving 1985 poem (HERE), by Northfield Mount Hermon grad June Jordan: it was performed on a 2015 Castle of Our Skins concert in Boston. BU grad Tom Cipullo, whose opera Glory Denied was presented last year at the Boston Conservatory (read the BMInt review HERE), set Wheatley’s poetry in his song cycle Climbing (2000).

Wheatley corresponded with George Washington, himself a slave holder who objected to Native and Black Americans joining the Colonial army (over 5,000 served). Wheatley met Washington when he was stationed in Cambridge in March 1776, and she also spoke with William Lee (1750-1828), an African American slave who served Washington throughout the American Revolutionary War. Lee is depicted in several famous (somewhat fanciful) paintings with Washington, HERE, HERE, and HERE, and was the only slave freed in Washington’s will. Contemporary playwright Len Lamensdorf developed a one-man show about William Lee’s life (with scenes in Boston and Cambridge) sixty years after graduating from Harvard Law (The Ballad for Billy Lee, 2012). One of the poems Wheatley dedicated to Washington has been set by composer Libby Larsen as the first movement of her choral cantata Seven Ghosts (1995) HERE.

Wheatley is featured, along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, as one of three bronze statues by Meredith Bergmann in the Boston Women’s Memorial (2003) in the Commonwealth Avenue Greenway between Fairfield and Gloucester in Boston.  Read the artist’s essay HERE.


Just after the French and Indian War (1754-1763), White colonists began to publish revolutionary ballads and broadsides to be sung to popular tunes, referring to themselves as England’s “slaves” for political effect. Boston lawyer and violinist James Otis, Jr., author of the sentiment “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” was an activist pamphleteer, like his friend Thomas Paine. One of his last publications, Rights of the British Colonies (1764) states, “The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.” Otis grew up in a slave-holding family, surrounded by indentured Mashpee native “servants,” but there is no evidence he owned slaves as an adult.

James Otis corresponded with Founding Father John Dickinson, collaborating on song lyrics “for freedom” such as “In freedom we’re born, and in freedom we’ll live;/ Our purses are ready,/ Steady, Friends, steady,/ Not as slaves but as freemen our money we’ll give.” Listen HERE.

Otis had this lyric published (Boston Gazette, July 18, 1768) and Dickinson did the same (Pennsylvania Journal and Pennsylvania Gazette, July 7, 1768) to demonstrate their willingness to pay taxes supporting local concerns; Otis’ letters helped to convince Dickinson (a Quaker) to manumit all of his slaves between 1777-1786. The Connecticut Gazette published similar political lyrics through the 1770s, while Boston was still occupied: “Smile, Massachusetts, smile,/ Thy virtue still outbraves/ The frowns of Britain’s isle/ and rage of home-born slaves.”

Boston tanners made important contributions to music during the revolutionary period, fashioning drumheads for the variety of military and parade drums used in public celebrations (such as Boston’s “Great Illumination” on May 16, 1766 celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act). White tanner and composer William Billings (1746-1800) published six book-length collections of hymns with musical notation in four parts after years of singing in choirs at New South Church. Singing (with unmarried men and women in the same room!) was one of the few social outlets available to young Bostonians, and locals began to compose for evening Singing Schools at churches. During the 1768 occupation of Boston, British troops camped on Boston Common, blocking Billings’ tanyard, so he composed the song “Chester” in response (“Let tyrants shake their iron rods/ And Slavr’y clank her galling chains./ We fear them not, we trust in God./ New England’s God forever reigns” (listen HERE). Billings was not listed as having any slaves in the 1790 Census. The Stoughton Musial Society (MA) HERE, America’s oldest performing musical organization, was founded in 1786 by twenty-five men who attended one of Billings’ 1774 singing schools. William Schuman’s New England Triptych (1956) has a movement based on “Chester” (listen HERE).

Tanner Prince Hall (c1735-1807) was one of Boston’s most prominent African American citizens: he founded the first masonic lodge for African Americans HERE and made drumheads on commission for the Boston Regiment of Artillery (see a receipt HERE). Black lodges were instrumental in helping American Blacks transcend the horrors of slavery and prejudice, achieve higher social status, and create their own spiritually-based social structure, which in some cities arose prior to the establishment of black churches. For an excellent exploration of this topic and its influence on music, read Cécile Révauger’s new book Black Freemasonry: From Prince Hall to the Giants of Jazz (Inner Traditions, 2014). Modern Prince Hall Masons often sing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” (an early African American spiritual based on Genesis 28:10-22) to represent the cardinal virtues of freemasonry and the metaphorical rungs of a Masonic theological ladder. Listen HERE.

Massachusetts gradually became a battleground over the status of African Americans: Prince Hall and other Black Bostonians submitted petitions seeking an end to slavery, but the state legislature passed off at least six to the Congress of Confederation. As colonists pressed for political and economic freedom from England, the British offered to free any slave who would serve in the British Army (roughly 20,000 became Black Loyalists). Abigail Adams worried about this possibility in a 1774 letter to her husband HERE: she relates that a group of local men asked General Gage to “engage to liberate them if he conquerd” with their help.

Following the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, the most difficult issue to be resolved was the fate of those who had joined the British during the war. Washington was surprised to learn that British Commander-in-Chief Guy Carleton’ evacuation plan included Black Loyalists, so Congress appointed a three-man commission to determine who was eligible. Three thousand men, women, and children, including a handful who had been free before the war, were issued certificates of freedom and granted British military transport passage to be resettled in Nova Scotia. See a sample HERE. Lawrence Hill’s award-winning history The Book of Negroes (2007) tells the story of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia (6% of whom came from Massachusetts): it was made into a star-studded 2015 CBC television miniseries.


In 1780, when the Massachusetts Constitution went into effect (“All men are born free and equal…”), slavery was still legal and the enslavement of Africans had become common practice in Massachusetts (a 1754 census listed nearly 4500 slaves in the colony). While Massachusetts had benefitted financially from the slave trade, its merchant and mixed economy was not dependent on forced labor, so abolitionist sentiment began to grow. In 1781, Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman of Sheffield, MA sued for her freedom and won, based on her claim that slavery was not consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution. One of her great-grandchildren was W.E.B. Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, the very town where her historic case was argued. The July 2009 Spirituals Concert at the Berkshire Choral Festival included Pamela Warrick-Smith’s arrangement of I’m So Glad, a traditional spiritual interspersed with spoken tributes to Freeman, Sojouner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.

By 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court abolished servitude and slavery in the Commonwealth, and Massachusetts began to gain a storied place in the history of America’s abolitionist and suffrage movements. By the first U.S. Census of 1790, few slaves were recorded in the state and two-thirds of Boston’s African Americans were living in their own households. African American Bostonians fought duels on the Common, took out advertisements refusing to pay the debts of errant wives, and joined masonic lodges. Cato Gardner was one of seventy-five free Black Bostonian men who signed a petition urging the state of Massachusetts to fund Black emigration to Africa. In 1797, he helped found the second Black organization in Boston, the African Society; in 1805, he withdrew from the First Baptist Church to co-found the first Black church in Boston (African Baptist) and raised money to build the African Meeting House (8 Smith Court) on the north slope of Beacon Hill (1806), the oldest surviving African American house of worship. The building is still being used for public concerts. Read a recent BMInt review HERE.

Boston’s educated Black elite began to agitate for social change and to lay the groundwork for racial equality, exerting an outsized influence on American cultural life. By the census of 1850, 90 percent of free Black adults in Boston were literate. The opening of Boston’s free public schools to African Americans in 1855 as prompted by the actions of Benjamin Roberts, who sued the city in 1848 stating that his daughter Sarah Roberts was unlawfully refused entrance to five schools between her home and the Smith School due to her race. Although Roberts lost his case despite the help of prominent abolitionists, his actions had the long-term effect of opening all Boston Public Schools to African American children.

Massachusetts was the only state in which abolitionist meetings were racially integrated, and songs formed an important part of meetings. Frederick Douglass’ fiery speeches on the 1845 abolitionist lecture circuit were framed by the Hutchinson Family Singers, forcing theater owners to integrate their venues. Founded after hearing concerts in Boston and Lynn, MA, the  White group of men and women drew crowds in the thousands in Manchester, NH and Boston and were the most popular American entertainers of the 1840s. For their appearance at Boston’s Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, they added lyrics to their theme song (“Liberty is our motto/ And we’ll sing as freemen ought to,” updating it to “Yes, we’re friends of Emancipation/ And we’ll sing a proclamation.”).

The Hutchinson Family Singers popularized four-part close harmony singing and developed original songs and lyrics promoting emancipation (“Get Off the Track,” repurposing Dan Emmett’s blackface minstrel tune “Ol’ Dan Tucker” in 1844) listen HERE; Bostonian patriotism (“The Death of Warren,” 1844) musical score HERE; abolition (“Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle,” 1855) musical score HERE; temperance (“King Alcohol,” 1843), listen HERE; and making fun of Congress “Eight Dollars a Day,” 1848) HERE. Most of their sheet music was published in Boston by Oliver Ditson. During the Civil War, when General George McClellan kicked the Hutchinsons out of the Union lines for being too fiercely abolitionist, President Lincoln reinstated them, saying, “It is just the character of song that I desire the soldiers to hear.”

Abolitionism became the foundation for most American social justice movements and encouraged the push for women’s rights. The Hutchinson Family advocated for women’s suffrage through original compositions such as “Vote It Right Along” (1869) HERE, “The Prophecy” (1867, performed at the Chicago 1893 Exposition) HERE, and “Clear the Way for Women’s Voting” (1868, once again repurposing “Ol’ Dan Tucker”) HERE, a particular favorite of Massachusetts audiences as late as 1883.

Boston became a hotspot for abolitionist publishing, from African American activist David Walker’s 1829 anti-slavery pamphlet Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (written in Boston) to White Newburyport native William Lloyd Garrison’s widely read anti-slavery newspaper The Crucible (1831-1865). Garrison became a mentor to Frederick Douglass and the White writer/composer Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), a native of Medford. Child’s illustrated An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called African (1833) was the first full-scale analysis of race and slavery; it included drawings of conditions on slave ships, called for immediate abolition of slavery, and defended interracial marriage. Her song “The New-England Boys’ Song about Thanksgiving Day” (now known as “Over the [Mystic !] River and through the Wood”) was published in 1844, and she often mentioned music in her letters, HERE: rhapsodizing over Mendelssohn (at the expense of Beethoven), preferring Catholic music to Protestant (“thought predominates over feeling too much”), and cataloging local sounds (“The [Boston] music stores are full of pieces of music suggested by [Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s] different scenes” (1852); “Madame Bishop’s singing…full of fioritune [coloratura]” (1859); “I went to Mrs. Chapman’s reception [in Boston]…occasionally enlivened by music of the Germania Band” (1861); “We had quite a glorification [in Wayland] of Grant’s election…attended by a band of music from Boston” (1869). Child’s many pro-suffrage essays (for both Blacks and women) and readers (for emancipated slaves) date mostly from 1854-1880, when she lived in Wayland, MA.

William Lloyd Garrison also organized the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston in 1831 and advocated for racial equality following the Civil War. The NEASS sponsored conventions and “agents” (speakers) throughout New England including William Wells Brown (c1814-1884), the first Black novelist and playwright (Clotel, 1853), who settled in Cambridge and Chelsea in 1854. Leading sites for abolitionist speeches included Boston’s African Meeting House, where Garrison formed the NEASS and escaped slaves such as Ellen Craft (1826-1897) and her husband William were active in abolitionist meetings. The NEASS spawned the interracial Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (1833-1840), which organized three national conventions and successfully sued southerners who brought slaves into Boston. In 1837, Lydia Child attended the first Female Anti-Slavery Convention as a delegate along with Black author Susan Paul (1809-1841), the first to publish a biography of an African American. Paul’s father, the Rev. Thomas Paul, was the founding pastor at the African Meeting House (1805) and New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church (1808).

White allies were easily found among Unitarians and Congregationalists across the Charless from Boston. Harvard Divinity School Professor Henry Ware, Jr. was the founding president of the Cambridge Anti-Slavery Society in 1834, and the first anti-slavery novel, The Slave (1836) was written by Richard Hildreth (Harvard Class of 1826). Professor Charles Follen (1796-1840) lost his job at Harvard due to his radical abolitionist beliefs and helped to found the congregation in West Lexington now called Follen Community Church. Latin professor Charles Beck put a trap door in his home (now Warren House, the home of the Harvard English Dept.) to shelter those on the Underground Railroad. Hayden House (66 Phillips Street, Boston) was also an active station on the Underground Railroad; Harriet Hayden (c1816-1893) and her husband Lewis, both born slaves, owned this house for more than forty years, working with Harriet Tubman (c1820-1913, read the recent BMInt article HERE), an African American abolitionist who was a Union spy during the Civil War. Tubman collaborated with Susan B. Anthony in New York and spoke many times on women’s suffrage and civil rights in Boston.

African American society women in Boston founded their own charitable and cultural institutions, such as the fully integrated Robert Gould Shaw House (employing social workers and teaching African Americans to read and write) and the Harriet Tubman House on Holyoke Street in the South End. The mission of Tubman House, which Tubman herself often visited, was to offer counsel and accommodation for single African American women newly arrived in Boston; the institution later merged with the South End Settlement House (founded in 1891) and continues to provide youth programs and social services, even as gentrification of Boston’s South End threatens its current building HERE.

Tubman described singing while conducting on the Underground Railroad to her biographer, Sarah Bradford, including the spiritual “Go Down Moses” and a version of the Baptist hymn “Thorny Desert.” She has been memorialized in opera (Thea Musgrave’s 1985 Harriet, the Woman Called Moses) and song, including Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Harriet Tubman” HERE, Walter Robinson’s 1977 folksong “Harriet Tubman” (performed last year by the Boston Children’s Chorus HERE), and Wynton Marsalis’ 2014 jazz tone poem “Harriet Tubman” (listen HERE).

David Ruggles (1810-1849), the first Black bookseller in New York City, was one of the leading militant abolitionists and Underground Railroad conductors in the 1830s. The creator of the first Black lending library, he sparked one of the first interracial “sit-ins” when he refused to sit in the “colored-only” sections of Massachusetts steamboats and railway cars (Boston, New Bedford, and Nantucket, 1841). He believed that women were crucial to the abolitionist cause, selling Boston-native Maria Stewart’s fiery prose and printing pamphlets that asked Northern women to shun their Southern counterparts, as they were complicit in the horrors of slavery. Stewart (1803-1879) was a Black abolitionist and the first American woman to give public speeches on politics and women’s rights.

Frederick Douglass, a frequent abolitionist speaker in Boston and Cambridge, credited Ruggles with rescuing him from poverty in New York, learning that writing could be fighting. Ruggles lived in a radical Utopian community HERE in the Florence neighborhood of Northampton, MA during the last decade of his life, where the National Park Service maintains a Center for History and Education, honoring the contributions of the Pioneer Valley to the abolition of slavery HERE. Ironically, slavery had been very pervasive around Northampton in the 1700s, and in the 1840s, the city remained a summer community that accorded special status to Southern slaveholders: they could legally bring their captives for up to nine months, even though slavery was illegal in the state.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) lived in in the same community HERE for fourteen years (1843-1857), developing into an influential abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Read her autobiography HERE. Fluent in Dutch and English, she was renowned for her ability to keep audiences enthralled through singing and eloquent speeches, including her own lyrics “the Valiant Soldiers” for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment (sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body/Battle Hymn of the Republic,” listen HERE).

A very low, sonorous alto (some described the sound as “masculine”), she wielded her voice for political effect, calming an 1844 Northampton mob with “It Was Early in the Morning,” re-texting “Auld Lang Syne” as “I Am Pleading for my People” at an Abolitionist Convention in Boston. Jeff Lederer, a jazz saxophonist who has done masterclasses at NEC, composed “Sojourner’s Song” for his 2006 CD Shakers and Bakers HERE, and her life has inspired other recent composers including “Sojourner Truth (Ain’t I A Woman)” by songwriter Jack Hardy (1947-2011) HERE, Columbia neurologist David Sulzer’s poignant 1990 string quartet Sojourner Truth (Listen HERE), UMass Amherst/Williams jazz professor Avery Sharpe’s 2012 album dedicated to her HERE, and Trumpeter Stanley Friedman’s eloquent Sojourner Truth: A Cantata in five movements (2019) HERE.

As Massachusetts became a crucible for resistance to slavery and segregation, Boston’s free Black community was instrumental in recruiting and advocacy efforts for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the second all-Black regiment of soldiers to fight in the Civil War. Trained in Boston and active from 1863-1865, two of Frederick Douglass’ sons were members, and the regiment was originally led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863), the son of prominent White Boston abolitionists. Saint-Gaudens’ 1897 monument to the 54th on Boston Common is the first US monument portraying Black Americans as heroic, and the 1989 film Glory memorializes their first campaign. The story and the statue inspired the third movement of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England (premiered in 1930). Listen to the BSO under Michael Tilson Thomas HERE.


By the end of the nineteenth century, only a few of Boston’s nearly 6,000 African Americans possessed real influence or wealth in the eyes of White society, but Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s house became a meeting place for the Charles Street circle, which included affluent freeborn Grimkés, Pindells, and Trotters, Harvard student W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), New England Conservatory musicologist Maud Cuney Hare (1874-1936), and other young members of Boston’s vibrant Black academic community. Du Bois tried out for the Harvard Glee Club in 1888, but was not accepted due to his race; by 1941, African American tenor Drue King (whose son and two granddaughters would later attend the same school) was denied a spot on the HGC tour of the South, sparking a debate about segregation that contributed to the desegregation of southern venues for college musical groups. Read the extensive Boston Globe article on the controversy HERE. In commemoration of Du Bois’s 150th birthday, the HGC put together a concert in his honor, commissioning new choral works based on his writing (description HERE).

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842-1924) became Boston’s leading African American hostess, organizing elegant musicales featuring Johannes Brahms, the Afro-French composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), and the poetry of Robert Browning (whose origins were widely believed to be “mixed”). Interest in Saint-Georges’ elegant music has enjoyed a local resurgence: Harvard’s Du Bois Orchestra has played his first symphony (2017 and 2019), Castle of our Skins presented half of his third string quartet at the Boston Public Library (2018, read the BMInt review HERE). Weston native and BU grad Bill Barclay developed a program entitled “The Black Mozart” for Tanglewood’s 2019 summer Learning Institute, HERE, and the French orchestra Les Siècles had planned to present his second violin concerto at Tanglewood this summer (before the shutdown).

Along with her daughter Birdie and Cambridge native Maria Baldwin, Josephine Ruffin founded the Women’s Era Club (1892), styling herself as a militant suffragette. She published Women’s Era Journal, the first newspaper by and for Black women (1886), the Courant (a weekly newspaper advocating for women’s rights and civil rights) and founded the National Federation of Afro-American Women (1895) and Boston’s League of Women for Community Service (1918). Ruffin is one of six women to have a bronze bust in the Massachusetts State House, and her home is a site on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Maria Baldwin (1856-1922) served as the African American principal of Cambridge’s Agassiz Grammar School [since 2004, the Maria L. Baldwin School] from 1889-1916. She held weekly literary classes for Black Harvard students including Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, and William Lewis at her home (196 Prospect Street), lectured widely, and belonged to many racially mixed civic organizations, including the Twentieth Century Club of Boston, the Cantabrigia Club, and the Robert Gould Shaw House Association. In 1903, she was elected President of the Boston Literary and Historical Association, an organization of leading Black civil rights activists. She was one of the first women members of the Niagara Movement, a founding organizer of the NAACP, and an early member of the board of the Boston Branch of the NAACP.

Anti-slavery and philanthropic traditions that still thrived in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century among Brahmins and a former abolitionists and reformers: they supported artists at the so-called industrial school at Hampton, Virginia. Notable names in the White community included Edward Everett Hale, the Unitarian minister, reformer, and popular author; Moorfield Storey, the great lawyer and former assistant to Sen. Charles Sumner; descendants of the anti-slavery leader William Lloyd Garrison; the popular artist and Civil War veteran Darius Cobb; the wealthy philanthropist Ellen Francis Mason; and the prominent activists Edwin D. Mead and Helen Storrow. They provided essential support to the historic Hampton educational enterprise and formed a vital link between the age of emancipation and the era of the Harlem Renaissance.


Although many African American spirituals can trace some elements back to the African continent, Harry Thacker Burleigh was the first to publish one as an art song (Deep River, 1916). Public performances still cause controversy, as many question whether the sorrow songs associated with slavery should be reinterpreted as European-style art songs, sung in southern dialects, or performed by vocalists who are not descended from the African diaspora. Early 20th -century arguments in the press included Roscoe Wright’s 1928 essay in Boston’s Saturday Evening Quill on the artificially of “Negro” spirituals as concert works, and the writings of pianist/composer William Lawrence (1919-1981), who studied at NEC from 1913-1916, trained and accompanied singers such as Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson, and championed spirituals as concert-worthy music.

During the post-Abolition period, the touring Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, TN showcased (mostly seated) concert arrangements of work and spiritual songs. Fisk, a historically black college, opened in 1866; it was the first American university to offer a liberal arts education to “young men and women irrespective of color.” The group has visited Boston regularly since its founding, from a recent Berklee-sponsored event at Symphony Hall (2016) to the World Peace Festival in Boston in 1872, and before an audience of 2,000 in Tremont Temple in 1873, where the Boston Journal  reported, “From the initial to the finale, the singers were applauded and encored, and now and then the enthusiasm broke forth in the interludes. Plaintive melodies of the South-land in the days of slavery, made up the major part of the programme. A few selections of more artistic composition were introduced, for the purpose of demonstrating, as they did most fully, that the students have been educated to an appreciation of the higher grades of vocalization.”

Minstrel troupes were popular in Boston, performing in private homes, army posts, and Beethoven Hall (on Washington Street near Boylston, later the Park Theater), which the Boston Herald described as “well filled last evening by admirers of Ethiopian delineations, assembled to see and hear the original Georgia Minstrels, who have returned from a very successful tour in Europe. The company is a novelty from the fact that all the members are colored, and their performances possess a genuineness which no burnt-cork artists can fully imitate. Their music, both vocal and instrumental, is excellent.”

James Monroe Trotter (1842-1892) lived in Boston for after being freed from slavery in Mississippi by his White father and teaching in Ohio. He was the first African American to be promoted to Second Lieutenant, serving with the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and his encyclopedic Music and Some Highly Musical People… Following Which are Given Sketches of the Lives of Remarkable Musicians of the Colored Race, with portraits and an appendix containing copies of Music composed by Colored Men (Boston, 1878, full text HERE) was a groundbreaking contribution to musicology.

Trotter quoted from almost one hundred Boston music reviews and includes biographies of two dozen performers active in Massachusetts in the 1870s. His introduction to that section begins, “In the city of Boston, which is the acknowledged great art centre of this country, the amplest facilities for the study of music are afforded. There the doors of conservatories and other music schools, among the finest of any in the world, are thrown open to all; the cost of admission being, considering the many advantages afforded, quite moderate. A love of the “divine art” pervades all classes in Boston; and there the earnest student and the skillful in music, of whatever race he may be, receives ready recognition and full encouragement. It is, in fact, almost impossible for one to live in that city of melody, and not become either a practical musician, or at least a lover of music.”

Trotter wrote about his contradicting feelings about minstrelsy, describing the burlesque portion of each show as “a disgusting caricaturing ostensibly of the speech and action of the more unfortunate members of the colored race” but praising the musical part as “charming in a musical way as to almost compensate the sensitive auditor for what he suffered while witnessing that part of the performance devoted to caricature.” He noted that three leading Boston theater conductors had been members of minstrel troupes and listed many musicians who had gone on to perform with leading American opera companies and orchestras.

Distinct from the concert spiritual choral tradition led by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, the solo concert spiritual called for a professionalization of spiritual singing and arranging. Boston churches and stages provided innovative forums for the performance of slow African American songs and spirituals. William Loren Katz’s Breaking the Chains: African-American Slave Resistance (Atheneum, 1990) describes planters and slaves fighting a long tug of war for control of enslaved people’s music, its themes, words, and tempo. British abolitionist Fanny Kemble wrote, “Many masters and overseers on plantations prohibit melancholy tunes or words and encourage nothing but cheerful music,” while some banned “any reference to particular hardships.” Masters demanded an accelerated beat in work songs to speed up labor, so the lyrical, public performance of a sad song as a way to reclaim its power.

African American composer and baritone Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) visited Boston many times; he was a charter member of ASCAP, a mentor to acclaimed singers such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson and a correspondent with James Weldon Johnson, Will Marion Cook, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and S. Coleridge Taylor. A new Society founded in his name in 2017 HERE has begun to present concerts, commission recordings, and underwrite research into Burleigh and the concert spiritual tradition. The Society’s President is Lynne Foote, who wrote a 2017 Master’s thesis at Oxford entitled “Deep River: The Negro Spiritual and Black Intellectual Thought, 1900–1930” and is working on a doctoral project provisionally titled “An Uplifted Voice: Harry T. Burleigh and Freedom Music in Jim Crow New York (1890 – 1930).”

Lyric tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1976) was the first African American soloist to appear with the BSO, singing both spirituals and classical repertoire from 1923-1944. A former member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (1911), Hayes performed his own arrangements in recitals (1916-1919), beginning with sold-out engagements in NEC’s Jordan Hall and Boston’s Symphony Hall. He lived at 58 Allerton Street in Brookline for almost fifty years. The Roland Hayes Museum in Calhoun, Georgia HERE: Christopher Brooks’ lavishly illustrated biography (Roland Hayes: The Legacy of an American Tenor, Indiana, 2016), and his recent program on Hayes’ life HERE provide into Hayes struggles to overcome racism and succeed as a concert singer. HERE is an excerpt from a Harvard Musical Association concert late in his career

Two local experts on these issues include Wheaton College (Norton, MA) music professor Dr. Ann Sears, who wrote her dissertation on “The Art Song in Boston, 1880-1914” at Catholic University and tenor Jim Thomas, a former Fisk Jubilee Singer who directs the U.S. Slave Song Project in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard (formerly the NAACP Spirituals Choir), which performs and researches the way coded lyrics could camouflage news, encouragement, and escape directions. Read a recent BMInt review of one of their Bost on-area concerts HERE. The Boston Art Song Society had planned to dedicate a Boston Athenaeum concert to African American composers last March, but have postponed the event until live concerts resume HERE.

Soprano Randye Jones has recently edited a collection endorsed by the National Association of Teachers of Singing entitled So You Want to Sing Spirituals: A Guide for Performers. George Shirley, a distinguished African American tenor who hosted the influential 1970s WQXP radio series “Classical Music and the Afro-American,”  [Listen HERE] wrote the first chapter. Felicia Barber, choral director at Westfield State (MA), contributed an article on dialect in concert spiritual music, and new online resources new online resources accompanying the book are HERE.

The progressive journalist Ray Stannard Baker, who lived in Amherst from 1910-1946, combined an interest in music and muckraking journalism: he was the first to report on early electric organs (esp. their potential to democratize music), race riots, and to investigate the “color line” HERE. His Boston interviews from 1907-1908 reveal a feeling of “cold-shouldering” and “hesitation and withdrawal” of support from the African American community, mentioning a concert at which “Theodore Drury, a coloured musician of really notable accomplishments, was to appear. Aristocratic white people were appealed to and bought a considerable number of tickets; but on the evening of the concert the large block of seats purchased by white people was conspicuously vacant.” Baker reported on the famous “Bread and Roses” textile strike (Lawrence, MA, 1912), noting that it was “the first strike I ever saw which sang. I shall not soon forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song. And not only at the meetings did they sing, but in the soup houses and in the streets.”

W. E. B. Du Bois (a native of Great Barrington, MA and the first African American to earn Harvard’s A.M. and PhD), journalist William Monroe Trotter (Harvard ’95, the first African American elected to Harvard Phi Beta Kappa), and Alain Locke (Harvard ’08, PhD ’18, the only black Rhodes Scholar until the 1960s) were spiritual godfathers to the Harlem Renaissance. They promoted education as a fundamental right and became central figures in twentieth-century movements for world peace, civil rights, and self-determination for people of African descent.

William Monroe Trotter (1873-1934) built on the work of black abolitionists in founding the Boston Equal Rights League (1901) and the progressive newspaper The Guardian; he became Boston’s most influential political activist, motivated by the encroachment of segregation laws in Boston. Du Bois was inspired by Trotter to develop the Niagara Movement (1907), the NAACP (1909), his concept of the “talented tenth,” and the New Negro Movement. In 1903, Trotter and his followers disrupted a speech by Booker T. Washington, and he organized a 1915 protest campaign against D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Maud Cuney Hare’s 439-page Negro Musicians and their Music (1936) is a foundational text of American musicology, documenting the development of Black America’s musical and theatrical arts movement. She was the daughter of Texas civil rights activist Norris Wright Cuney (one of the most skillful African American politicians of the Reconstructionist South), and lived in Jamaica Plain for thirty years after studying piano at NEC from 1890-1895 (where she was the first Black student allowed to live in Conservatory dorms, due to intervention from Colored National League); Cuney became a notable folklore collector, was the first to study Creole music, was the first African American musician to perform in the Boston Public Library lecture-concert series (1919), and founded Boston’s Allied Arts Center (1927). Under her direction, the center held lectures, concerts and classes in music, dance, voice and drama, embraced a children’s “little theatre” in Boston’s black community, and founded a writer’s workshop HERE.


Videmus, HERE a non-profit organization that promotes the concert repertoire of African American and women composers, was founded in 1986 at Tufts University by pianist Vivian Taylor, and had been based in North Carolina since 1997. Videmus has produced more than 2 dozen recordings (many featuring local artists) in partnership with Albany Records and sponsors projects relating to African American music.

The African American Composer Initiative HERE is a presenting organization based in East Palo Alto, CA; it commissions new works and sponsors performances and videos of music by living and historical African American composers. The African American Art Song Alliance maintains a YouTube page of over seventy videos of recital performances HERE.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, which has supported over 300 fellows since its founding in 1975; the Institute also awards medals to individuals whose work has contributed significantly to African and African American culture. 2004-05 Fellow Lorraine Elena Roses’ project “Black Boston’s Cultural Flowering, 1920-1940” was published HERE, and 2010-11 Fellow Lisa Thompson’s project “Staging the Unspeakable: Cultural Trauma in African American Theater & Performance” has resulted in several new plays by the author. Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center, is now engaged in two book projects, Teaching White Supremacy: The Battle Over Race in American History Textbooks and The Liberator’s Legacy: Memory, Abolitionism, and the Struggle for Civil Rights, 1865–1965.

African American Heritage Trails and Literary Districts may be visited in Boston HERE and HERE, Oak Bluffs HERE, the Florence Neighborhood of Northampton HERE, and the Upper Housatonic Valley HERE. The Museum of African American History HERE has campuses in Boston and Nantucket.

Some new resources supporting this essay include links provided by the African American Art Song Alliance HERE, sponsoring performances and new compositions since 1997; Song of America, an outgrowth of Hampsong at the University of Michigan HERE; and Dr. Louise Toppin’s easily searchable African Diaspora Music Project HERE. Dr. Toppin, a professor of Voice at the University of Michigan, has presented lecture-recitals on African American music in Kresge at MIT (in Handel’s Messiah on December 8, 2002), in Symphony Hall (June 10, 2007 at Project STEP’s 25th-Anniversary Gala), and at Tufts (a March 12, 2012 concert celebrating T.J. Anderson). She supervises the George Shirley African American Art Song and Operatic Aria Competition (founded in 2010), the Dr. Lynn Bridges Memorial Award Scholarship (for graduate study in music, founded in 1999) and the Edgar A. Toppin Memorial Award (for research and special projects, founded in 2004).

For further reading, please consult these six great books on New England’s African American communities: William Pierson’s Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in 18th-Century New England (Amherst, 1988), Robert C. Hayden’s African Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years (Boston Public Library, 1991); the edited collection Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe (New York: NYU Press, 1993); Boston’s Black Upper Class: 1750-1950 by Adelaide Cromwell (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994); African American Firsts: Famous, Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks by Joan Potter (Kensington, 2009); and Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England by Catherine Adams (Oxford, 2010).

This article is an outgrowth of another BMInt article HERE.

Laura Prichard teaches throughout the Boston area as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, as a theater pianist (Winchester Cooperative Theater), and at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, under Vance George.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Readers might be interested in the Gaiety Theater, the home of the Harlem Renaissance in Boston. The BMInt publisher and one of our writers highly involved themselves in documenting and trying to save the place.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 30, 2020 at 8:24 am

  2. This is a fantastically informative and helpful article on this topic. Thank you!

    Comment by poldi binder — June 30, 2020 at 12:45 pm

  3. One of the many things I learned in my years of service with the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail is that the generally accepted form name is PHILLIS Wheatley. She was named after the slave ship she was transported on. (See Boston Landmarks Orchestra commissioned and recorded “The Journey of Phillis Wheatley” from African-American composer Nkeiru Okoye which can be heard here on the composer’s Soundcloud page. It is a delightful aimed at introducing young people to the instruments of the orchestra (as well as illustrating an event in Wheatley’s life. w Also Okoye’s opera “HARRIET TUBMAN : When I Crossed that Line to Freedom” is widely acclaimed and was to be performed in May 2020 by Knoxville Opera.

    Comment by Liane Curtis — July 14, 2020 at 1:08 pm

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