The Washington Conservatory of Music was the first conservatory founded by and for Black musicians. Between 1903 and 1960, the conservatory strengthened musical communities across the country, but it is largely forgotten today. That may be because of its role in producing what scholar Doris McGinty has called the “anonymous infrastructures” of Black musical communities. We set out to name the people who built those infrastructures.

Through digital maps and deep dives into the careers of its first thirty graduates, we explore the impact of the Washington Conservatory in its own time, and in ours. Click on the topics below to learn more about the conservatory, its alumni, and our research process.

While you read, consider listening to this Spotify playlist, a compilation of some of the music played at commencements, opening ceremonies, student recitals and more during the Conservatory’s 58-year lifespan.

The Conservatory: A History

Founded in 1903 by Harriet Gibbs Marshall, the Washington Conservatory of Music was the first private institution of higher education created by and for Black musicians. Thousands of students received lessons and hundreds received degrees […]

Harriet Gibbs Marshall: Founder

The story of the Washington Conservatory of Music is inextricable from that of its founder, Harriet Gibbs Marshall. The first Black woman to receive a music degree from Oberlin Conservatory and the scion of the wealthy, influential Gibbs family, Marshall led […]

Within a Segregated Nation

The thirty musicians who graduated from the Washington Conservatory of Music between 1910 and 1914 lived during a particularly turbulent time in American history. Born after the end of Reconstruction, they participated in the rapid growth of the […]

Alumni: Teachers

Teaching was a natural occupation choice for many of these graduates as segregation prevented other career opportunities from being available. Education was seen as a respectable profession that was in accord with racial uplift ideology. […]

Alumni: Performers and Composers

The most famous Black classical musicians of the early twentieth century were all performers and composers: Harry T. Burleigh, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, William Grant Still, William Dawson, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds. The […]

Alumni: Activists

In addition to their work as performers and teachers, many early graduates of the Washington Conservatory of Music became activists working with local and national organizations working, most often at the intersection of music and civil rights. Elsie […]

Grace G. Brown

Grace Evangeline Gibbs was born on October 4, 1892, in Tallahassee, Florida. She was the daughter of Alice Menard and Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs. According to her niece, Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman, Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs […]

Wilhelmina B. Patterson

Wilhelmina B. Patterson (1888-1962) was a highly regarded music educator, vocalist, and pianist in early twentieth century Washington, DC and beyond. As a faculty member at multiple Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) […]

Henry L. Grant

One early standout graduate from the Washington Conservatory was Henry Lee Grant (1886-1954). Grant’s career as a teacher at Dunbar High School, role as president and founder of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), and […]

About the Project

This project stemmed from an interest in musical life at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) during the first decades of their existence. In the planning stages of the project, we discovered that the Washington Conservatory […]

Who We Are

The Musical Geography Project is a collaborative, digital humanities, musicological research initiative initiated by Dr. Louis Epstein at St. Olaf College in 2015. Dr. Epstein and University of Denver undergraduate Maeve Nagel-Frazel collaboratively co-developed […]

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 […]

These maps, which are visual representations of our research, provide several different ways to see our research culminated in one easy-to-use format. Click the button above to explore them further.


We are especially grateful to Karen Bryan, Lucy Caplan, Sandra Graham, Tammy Kernodle, Carol Oja, Sarah Schmalenberger, Doug Shadle, and Kristen Meyers Turner for graciously entering into conversation with us via Zoom and for offering their time and edifying thoughts on our work. Thank you to Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman for providing us with an oral history of the Gibbs family, and to Mickey Terry for speaking with us about the history of the Howard University Music Department. Sara Dale and Ben Gottfried provided crucial support as we wrestled with ArcGIS and WordPress. We greatly appreciate the librarians and archivists who facilitated our research at St. Olaf and in several archives in Washington, DC: Karen Olson (Research and Instruction Librarian for Music and Fine Arts at St. Olaf College), Cait Miller (Music Reference Specialist, Library of Congress), Lela Sewell-Williams (Curator of Manuscripts, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University), Charice Thompson (Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University), Jennifer Morris (Archivist, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum), and Kimberly Springle (Executive Director, Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives). Many thanks to St. Olaf’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry program for providing funding for this project, with a special thank you to St. Olaf faculty and staff Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak and Erin Eltonga for running CURI.


Oral History Transcript:

The transcript from our oral history with Phylicia Fauntleroy Bowman is available for download here. 


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