From the Archives: A Celebration of NEC’s African American Legacy

As Black History Month comes to a close, we celebrate Black alumni from the earliest years of the Conservatory. Members of the Black Student Union worked with NEC archivists Maryalice Perrin-Mohr and Cody Forrest to research Black history and artistry from the early years of NEC.

This photo essay highlights a selection of NEC alumni from the Conservatory's founding (1867) through the first class of Bachelor's degree recipients (1932.)

Rachel M. Washington

Commencement program listing Rachel M. Washington, 1872. She was most likely the first African American to graduate from NEC. She majored in voice.

commencement program listing

Nellie Brown Mitchell

Nellie Brown (Mitchell) (1845-1924) studied voice at NEC in 1873. She had a significant career as a soprano soloist throughout New England and the United States and formed her own opera company, the Nellie Brown Mitchell Concert Company.

 

commencement program listing
Image courtesy of Dover Public Library, Dover, NH.

Maud Cuney Hare

Maud Cuney (Hare) (1874-1936), music historian, concert pianist, and playwright studied piano at NEC in 1890. She is perhaps best known for her book, Negro Musicians and Their Music, first published in 1936.

commencement program listing


J. Rosamund Johnson

While J. Rosamund Johnson is chiefly remembered today as the composer of the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," he also had a varied career as a pianist, songwriter, producer, soldier, singer, and actor. He was an important figure in black music in the first part of the 20th Century, usually in partnership with Bob Cole or with his brother James Weldon Johnson.

Johnson attended NEC for 4 semesters in 1893, studying piano with Charles F. Dennee and voice with William H. Dunham.

J. Rosamund Johnson's class card
J. Rosamund Johnson's class card
Robert Cole and J. Rosamund Johnson
J. Rosamund Johnson with frequent collaborator Robert Cole.
commencement program listing
J. Rosamund Johnson composed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black National Anthem, with lyrics by his brother James Weldon Johnson.

Fannie Barrier Williams

Fannie Barrier (Williams) (1855-1944), studied piano and art at NEC in 1894. She was a teacher, social activist, clubwoman, lecturer, and journalist who worked for social justice, civil liberties, education, and employment opportunities, especially for black women.

commencement program listing


Walter Howard Loving

Walter Howard Loving was a soldier and musician most noted for his leadership of the Philippine Constabulary Band. The son of formerly enslaved parents, Loving led the band during the 1909 U.S. presidential inaugural parade, where it formed the official musical escort to the President of the United States, the first time a band other than the U.S. Marine Band had been assigned that duty.

commencement program listing

Walter Loving's NEC class card
Walter Loving's NEC class card from 1899

Florence Price

Florence Beatrice Smith Price (1887-1953) earned two NEC diplomas in 1906: one in organ as a soloist and one in piano as a teacher. Price, an American classical composer, was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Her Symphony in E minor premiered with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933.

commencement program listing

Class of 1906 with Florence Price (2nd row from bottom, right side)
NEC's class of 1906. Florence Price is in the second row, third from the right.
Program from the NEC Commencement concert, 1906. Florence Beatrice Smith performed the first movement of Henry Dunham’s Sonata in G minor, for organ.
Program from the NEC Commencement concert, 1906. Florence Beatrice Smith (later Price) performed the first movement of Henry Dunham’s Sonata in G minor, for organ.

Isabele Taliaferro Spiller

Isabele Taliaferro Spiller (1888-1974), earned a Certificate in Public School Music from NEC in 1909. She became a Harlem Music Educator, assistant manager for the Musical Spillers (1912-1926), and director of the Spiller Music School, founded in 1926.

Isabele Taliaferro Spiller smiles broadly while conducting

 


Louis Vaughn Jones

Louis Vaughn Jones earned a diploma in violin as a teacher in 1918.  Jones served in France during World War I with the Army as assistant conductor of the 807th Pioneer Infantry Band. In 1930, Jones became professor and head of the violin department at Howard University, a position he held until 1960.

Louis Vaughn Jones

 


1932: The First NEC Class to Earn Bachelor's Degrees

In 1932, thirteen students became the first to graduate with Bachelor's degrees from NEC. Among them were Luther Fuller and Anna Bobbitt Gardner.

NEC's first students to earn bachelor's degrees, in 1932
Class portrait of the first NEC students to earn Bachelor's degrees, awarded in 1932.

Luther Fuller

Luther Fuller was the first African American man to earn a Bachelor’s degree at NEC.  He specialized in musicology and graduated in 1932. He previously taught in Texas and served in the first World War, and he went on to earn a Master's degree at Boston University. His academic thesis at NEC was titled "The religious songs of the American Negro."

Luther M. Fuller's NEC class card
Luther M. Fuller's NEC class card

Anna Bobbitt Gardner

In 1931, Anna Bobbitt Gardner (1901-1997) earned a diploma in school music and went on to become the first African American woman to be awarded a Bachelor’s degree from NEC the following year.

Bobbitt founded the Academy of Musical Arts (1-3 Claremont St., Boston). She operated at least five studios in Boston under the same name for more than sixty years, the first in the basement of her home in 1924. She managed Colored American Nights, featuring African American musicians at Symphony Hall, and produced local radio and television programs for an African American audience.

Anna Bobbitt Gardner
Anna Bobbitt Gardner's yearbook photo.

 

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