Preliminary research into some graduates from the Washington Conservatory of Music has begun, so much of my week has been spent combing through newspaper and genealogical records in search of our graduates. Before we could get into that research, however, we had to go back a bit and read some works to understand the world these graduates lived in. Background reading to understand the historical context of the time period we’ll be following and learning a bit more about the musical scene for black performers and composers is necessary if we want to truly grasp the narrow research we’re doing.
One of the most valuable resources we’ve been using is Eileen Souther’s The Music of Black Americans, which paints the picture of the scene of music and details the lives of a few famous black musicians, such as Harry Burleigh. She explains the importance of studying the musical activities of black Americans and having their stories recorded, because their music is of significant cultural importance. Understanding the settings that lead to musical development, such as movement during the slave trade and the dispersal of people in the years after the salve trade ended, allows us to have a clearer picture of how music was used in their communities. We can also use these geographical points to pin down the creations of new music and where and how it spread.
But we shouldn’t just research along known slave trade routes and places we’re sure have had rich musical history. As Louis Epstein discussed in a conference paper titled “Desegregating Sound: Place and Race in American Music Historiography”, when people have gone to research black music, they search where they expect to have success, which leaves many potential stories and works in the dark. That isn’t to say that tracking a known traveling minstrel show isn’t good research, but we should also look into places where minstrel shows didn’t go, and we should look at more performances that can be studied within the places that they did.
As our project revolves around graduates of the Washington Conservatory of Music, we must first investigate the contributions the school made to racial uplift. WCM was a Black educational institute founded by the first black woman to graduate from Oberlin, Harriet Gibbs Marshall. In her dissertation The Washington Conservatory of Music and African-American Musical Experience, 1903-1941, Sarah Schmalenberger analyzes how the WCM helped African American people construct their own careers in music. Harriet Gibbs Marshall provided a space for people to have classical training and become professional musicians. Because the classical musical scene was dominated by white musicians and had little acceptance for people of color, the institute provided a path to help black musicians enter the classical scene with an education to support them. That is why we’re starting by following the graduates of this school, so we can see where they went in life and how they contributed to the world of music.