Challenges and Next Steps
Our project is necessarily incomplete. As much as we have tried to reconstruct comprehensive and intricate biographies of Washington Conservatory graduates, some biographical information about graduates remains elusive. Digitized newspapers and genealogical records are a fantastic resource for twenty-first century historians, but they cannot answer every historical question. Archival records are also frustratingly incomplete. In all but one case, Washington Conservatory graduates do not have personal archival collections.1 For that reason, locating personal ephemera that can speak to Washington Conservatory graduates’ own thoughts and motivations has proven difficult.
While our project attests to the viability of utilizing digital sources to circumvent existing archival silences, some archival silences are insurmountable. The scope and quality of digitized African-American newspapers pales compared to white counterparts. Poor-quality microfilm scanning means some digitized Black newspapers are unreadable or unrecognizable by Optical Character Recognition, which makes search more difficult and requires a great deal more time spent skimming than is required when doing research in white newspapers.2
As a ten-week summer research project, the depth of our inquiry was sometimes stifled by time limitations. While we were able to connect with one living descendant of a Washington Conservatory graduate (Thank you Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman!), project time limitations meant we were unable to connect with other living descendants of Washington Conservatory graduates. A downloadable transcript of our oral history with Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman is available here. Future iterations of this project could track down living descendants of more Washington Conservatory Graduates and conduct a series of oral history interviews. In addition, since the Washington Conservatory remained in existence until 1960, future scholars could seek out living graduates of the Washington Conservatory in order to create a more comprehensive oral history of the Washington Conservatory.
Musical performance that celebrated the work of Black composers and advocated for Afro-American musical history through performance was part and parcel of Marshall’s educational vision. During her tenure as director, Marshall organized several musical performances that celebrated Afro-American musical history including “Three Periods of Negro Music” (1921), “The Last Concerto: A Drama Based on the Life, Love, and Work of Samuel Coleridge Taylor” (1936), and “A Masque Musical” (1937).3 Future scholarship could seek out scores for these works and embark on interdisciplinary, reconstructive musical performance. Further archival research is also needed to reconstruct the sheet music library Marshall collected for the National Negro Music Center.
The Washington Conservatory of Music was never the only institution open to Black musicians. While our project focuses on the Washington Conservatory, additional research is needed on graduates of other Black musical institutions. Future projects could map musical graduates of HBCUs such as Fisk University, Hampton University, or Tuskegee Institute. While significant scholarship exists on nineteenth-century Fisk University graduates, comparatively little scholarship exists on twentieth-century musical graduates of Fisk University.4 Extensive work exists on Hampton University’s educational and musical legacy, but no scholarship exists tracking specific musical graduates of Hampton University.5 Additionally, more research is needed on smaller, twentieth-century, Black musical educational institutions such as Emma Azalia Hackley’s Vocal Normal Institute in Chicago, the Mary Cardwell-Dawson Music School in Pittsburgh, and Margaret Bond’s Allied Arts Academy in Chicago. While Harriet Gibbs Marshall was in many ways exceptional, we hope future research will reveal Marshall was a part of a much larger network of female Black musical educators who transformed the lives of countless students in the twentieth century. We also expect that future research will reveal links between the institution-building work of Gibbs Marshall and her contemporaries and the development of latter-day institutions promoting Black music research and performance, including journals, academic departments, and centers created by figures such as Eileen Southern [link to Harvard Southern exhibit] and Samuel Floyd, Jr.
Graduates of the Washington Conservatory are not the only figures associated with the Washington Conservatory worthy of scholarship. More research is needed into Washington Conservatory faculty members such as Harry A. Williams (voice), Felix Weir (violin), Leonard Jeter (cello), and Abby L. Williams (voice) – many of whom were accomplished concert musicians in their own right. Additional research is also needed on Washington Conservatory-adjacent musical organizations such as the Bethel Literary and Historical Association and Mu-So-Lit Club, that served as equally important touch-points within a broader, Washington, DC-based musical network. Our research shows that Black churches played a disproportionate role in advancing Black classical musicianship in the early twentieth century; work in Black church archives will likely reveal a thriving, multifaceted culture of classical music performance, education, and activism. We hope future scholarship will prove that our work on the Washington Conservatory is only one part of a vast and intricate infrastructure of Black musicians in early twentieth-century US American life.
While not an HBCU, the Washington Conservatory of Music exists in dialogue with other HBCUs. This map visualizes all HBCUs founded from 1837-1960.
Data from https://hbcuconnect.com/colleges/.
1 Wilhelmina B. Patterson is the only graduate with an existing collection of personal archival material. Patterson’s papers are part of the Dale-Patterson Collection at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Notably, the scope of personal ephemera relating to Patterson is significantly smaller than the scope of materials relating to her more famous brother, Frederick Douglass Patterson (1901-88). Without famous family members, it seems unlikely that Patterson’s personal papers would have been saved at all.
3 Washington Conservatory faculty member Shirley Graham also wrote an opera entitled “Tom Tom” which was premiered by the Cleveland Opera Company in 1932. See Schmalenberger, pg. 205.
4 See Sandra Graham, Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018); Sandra Graham, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Concert Spiritual: The Beginnings of an American Tradition,” PhD Diss, New York University, 2001; and Toni Passmore Anderson, “The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Performing Ambassadors for the Survival of an American Treasure, 1871-78,” PhD Diss., Georgia State University, 1997. An exceptional study of Fisk University students after the nineteenth century is Marti Newland, “Sounding “Black”: An Ethnography of Racialized Vocality at Fisk University” (Columbia University: Ph.D. Dissertation, 2017).
5 See Lawrence Schenbeck, “Representing America, Instructing Europe: The Hampton Choir Tours Europe.” Black Music Research Journal 25, no. ½ (2005): 3–42. Lori Rae Shipley, “A History of the Music Department at Hampton Institute /University, 1868–1972.” PhD Diss., Boston University, 2009. Lori Rae Shipley, “Music Education at Hampton Institute, 1868–1913” Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2011 XXXII:2.