MY UNSUNG HEROES

“As a middle-class, light-skinned black man I am ‘better’ by American standards but there is no amount of assimilation that can shield you from racism in the U.S.”

Brian Jones (guardian)

Introduction

I am an African American woman who was born and raised in the southern part of the United States. As a classical flutist, I always grew up different, and never really understood the racial relations in America until later in my life. My parents ran a church and put me and my three older brothers in music classes. That was my life, church or music and an athletic endeavor when there was time. I was grateful to live in a loving, but sheltered, home that successfully kept me away from all of the bad and horrible news. What is this news that I reference? Well, for example, with a heavy heart, I write this essay 3 days after the death of Daunte Wright, a 20 year old African American man who was fatally shot by police officer Kimberly Potter during a traffic stop. He is important because he is another fallen soldier in the war against injustices in America. Black people in America have been through trauma that has been exploited on every news platform. For me, it seems every day there is a new heartbreaking story, or rather, more news on a story with which the world is already familiar. I say his name, George Floyd, I say her name Breonna Taylor, I say his name, Emmett Till. Names that I shouldn’t have to say, but I must—it’s the community’s way of preserving the lives of our fallen soldiers and ancestors. Going back to my childhood memories, I remember having heroes. I remember having so many people I looked up to. I studied with an African American flutist, Kim Scott, and I remember Flutronix. These were some of my heroes, and they were my major influences. Having heroes was so important in my young development, and I can’t imagine growing up any other way.

What is a hero? A hero is a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. In our culture, heroes are mostly known as fictional, unreachable humans who hold superhuman powers. These heightened powers influence and inspire the willing and accepting—usually the young at heart. And although heroes are mostly known this way, I think the average person would not consider the celebrities of today as heroes—but I do. Think about it, celebrities are usually given their platforms as a gift for their huge contributions to society, whether negative or positive. Humans give them their unreachable platform and superhuman qualities, and depending on how much they are loved and how much they inspire, they ultimately live long past their lifetimes in the heart of history and the minds of those touched. This is how it goes, and I will assume that most people will agree with this summary of heroes and culture. My next question is, what now is an unsung hero? If being a hero connects to being a celebrity, how does one become an unsung hero? I will give you that answer. It’s called racism, it’s called a disease, it’s called an agenda, it’s called witnessing a great effort to erase prevalent voices that are ultimately important to history and humans, but have somehow been forgotten because of the reasons mentioned above.

As a black classical musician and educator, in today’s world/generation, I have come to run into many brick walls on why so many of my culture’s heroes have been erased. Through a major juxtaposition, the black race has experienced an enormous amount of trauma and silencing throughout history, yet hold an enormous number of unsung voices that have advanced all nations and ultimately the music world as a whole. And knowing this now as a doctoral student, I find myself saying what a lot of others like me say: “I wish I knew of these stories when I was younger.” What does that mean? That means, as a young person, I would have been much more inspired and motivated to hold the memories of past ancestors who have pushed humanity forward. Knowing their stories means knowing mine. The education system is notorious for being culprits of creating unsung voices, and through this scholarship, I wish to highlight this uncharted territory. What is the importance of heroes? They inspire, they raise the level, they show what can be done and also paint a picture of what’s next. With this knowledge, I make the claim that the next step in fixing the issues around race in Academia is to dive back into researching unknown territories that will ultimately advance scholarship as a whole and paint a more accurate picture of how we arrived where we are historically—for we can not move forward without going back and picking up those we left behind.

This uncharted territory that I speak of is simply a place of actively searching, finding and displaying the unsung voices of our history that have been silenced and forgotten in name, but not in impact. In my research, I hope to show how the unsung heroes of the Black community have legacies that paint the structure and foundation of modern life and technology and the true meaning of musicology. As a black student learning to navigate the world that I am living in, I find it very important to seek out voices who have walked a similar path or a path that is truly admired. In this essay I have chosen to highlight three prominent black voices that have created waves within the music community and have become inspirations to my personal journey as a black classical flutist, musician and educator. Those voices are: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Florence Beatrice Smith-Price, and Maestro Everett Astor Lee. Through the telling of these stories, I hope to educate the world of Academia while personally connecting the dots within my own musical journey and the future educators who will come after me.

“One of the great needs of Negro children

is to have books about themselves and their lives

that can help them be proud.”

Langston Hughes

1. Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is best remembered as the first known classical composer of African ancestry. Born on Christmas Day in 1745 in Guadalupe, Chevalier de Saint-Georges became a French classical violinist, a composer who inspired Mozart, conductor of a leading symphony orchestra in Paris, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, and a well known champion fencer. He was the son of Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, who had a child with his wife’s 16 year old African (Senegalese) slave, Anne dite Nanon. And as councilor at the parliament of Metz, Georges de Bologne Saint-Georges went against the norms and took his son, Joseph, to be educated in France – bringing his mother two years later. There, during the French Revolution, the son, who became known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, served as a colonel of his own regiment, the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe—fighting on the side of the Republic.

Under French law, the Chevalier de Saint-George was ineligible for “titles of nobility,” due to his African mother. In the 17th century, France and its colonial possessions were under a Code Noir—an official order by the French King Louis XIV defining slavery conditions in the French colonial empire. This official order forced all enslaved people to convert to catholicism, it limited the activities of free people of color, it defined the punishments issued out to slaves, and ordered the ejection of all Jews from France’s colonies. This order was very complex and multidimensional and outlawed the worst crimes owners could inflict on their slaves. Still subject to racism via the Code Noir, free people of color were otherwise free to go after their own careers. Compared to other places in the world, a free person of color in the French colonial empire was highly likely to be educated and had a strong chance of owning their own businesses, properties and even slaves. Distinguished professor of history, Tyler Stovall, described the Code Noir as “one of the most extensive official documents on race, slavery, and freedom ever drawn up in Europe.” (Hidden truths)

On April 5, 1762, King Louis XV ordered that black and people of color (Nègres et gens de couleur) must register with the clerk of the Admiralty within two months. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire actually believed and argued that Africans and their descendants were inferior to White Europeans. And being 17 years old at the time, the Chevalier de Saint-George experienced the present laws and racist attitudes towards people of color. This reality unfortunately made it very difficult for Joseph Bologne to match with anyone at his level of society. Despite these challenges, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint Georges achieved many successes and conquered many odds that were stacked against him.

            During his teenage years, Joseph obtained many fans for his incredible fencing skills. His popularity garnered him major hate from racists like Alexandre Picard, an adult fencing master from Rouen who mocked and challenged Joseph, a mere teenager and student, to a public match. The match drew a wide audience that was divided in the middle between the people who favored slavery vs. those who were against it. As you can see, this event became bigger than a simple match between a full grown adult and teenage student. And although Joseph was less skilled, being a student, he defeated Picard in a very important match that demonstrated “the validity of slavery.” With Joseph winning this match, this moment became the ultimate achievement and is known for pushing history and public opinion forward in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so happy for his son that he bought him his own horse and buggy. After graduating fencing school not too long after, he became a chevalier —he took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

            Besides his amazing athletic abilities, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. As concertmaster, the Chevalier de Saint Georges’ performances were highly talked about and he became the ultimate ladies man. Saint Georges loved this attention, but under French law, interracial marriage was prohibited, so he unfortunately stayed unmarried until his death. He went on to become the director of Le Concert des Amateurs, which under his leadership, turned into one of the best ensembles in Europe. The Chevalier de Saint Georges was such a successful celebrity that when his father died in 1774, he was more than capable of supporting himself and his African mother from his income. In his 30s, Saint-Georges acquired a very wealthy patron, Philippe, duc d’Orleans, who ultimately helped lead him to his abolitionist work in England. He was sent to England to connect and secure a relationship with the Prince of Wales, and he became such a huge sensation that the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (pictured above).

            Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is often referenced as “the black Mozart,” in an attempt to portray just how much of an impact he had in his time. The reality is that he was despised by Mozart. The US president John Adams referenced Joseph as “the most accomplished man in Europe.” During this time, Mozart was a starving artist who had lost his mother and was struggling to bring his compositions some success. At rock bottom, Mozart encountered and lived under the same roof as Saint-Georges, who was 33 at the time and the leader of one of the best orchestras in Europe. With the race relations, Mozart was so jealous of Chevalier de Saint Georges, who was simply “exotic, brilliant, established, at ease, popular with the ladies and [very] close to the Queen.” (independent) It is said that Mozart created a black character in the Magic Flute by the name of Monostatos, a villain who is an enemy of the protagonist. This character has been likened to the Chevalier de Saint Georges and portrays Mozart’s hostility towards him and his career. Fast forward to today, 2021. Why don’t we know of this incredible human being and major contributor to society? Why is the Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ name fighting to be heard, when he contributed so much to society, influenced and was envied by our beloved Mozart, and obtained so many accolades and successes that he achieved on his own during a very racist time period? Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, deserves his flowers—to acknowledge this unsung hero is to acknowledge a clearer understanding of classical music in the 18th century.

My writing has been largely concerned

with the depicting of Negro life in America.

Langston Hughes

2. Florence Beatrice Smith-Price

Florence Beatrice Price was born on April 9th, 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas to a well off mixed-race family. Despite the racial issues of her time, Ms. Price is best remembered as the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Her dad was the only African-American dentist in the city, and her mother was a music teacher who initiated Price’s music lessons. As a young prodigy, at age 4, Price gave her first music recital, and at age 11 she wrote her first compositions. When she turned 14, she graduated as the valedictorian of her class. She went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where she obtained a Piano and Organ degree. As a fair skinned, high yellow person of color, Price listed her hometown as Pueblo, Mexico, doing this to try and avoid racial discrimination against African Americans. In 1906, Florence B. Smith graduated from the New England Conservatory with honors, an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

After school, Florence moved back home to eventually become head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1912, she married lawyer Thomas J. Price, and moved back to her hometown where her husband had rooted his business. They lived there for a few years, before moving away in response to the severe racial tensions in the city. In the South, during the early 20th century, Jim Crow Laws were in operation. Just like the Code Noir in 17th century France, the colonizers of America also created very intricate and detailed laws that segregated and marginalized people of African descent. These laws, named after a Black minstrel show character, existed from the post Civil War era until 1968. During this time period, slavery had been abolished and people of color began their journey towards freedom. Jim Crow laws denied people of color any opportunity to hold jobs, get an education, vote, and many other freedoms afforded us today. During this period, the Ku Klux Klan was born and strengthened and the anger and hostility grew very strong, especially in the South. “Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence and death.” (history.com)

These racial tensions grew so strong that on the morning of May 5, 1927, the country awoke to news articles describing the lynching of John Carter in Little Rock, Arkansas. Said to have been mentally disabled, John Carter was kidnapped by a mob of angry white nationalists, who lynched him, dragged his body to the corner of one of the most important black businesses sections, and burned him in front of the community. Across the country, riots were breaking out and people of color were the targets. No matter innocent or guilty, people of color were given false charges in jail, killed unjustly, and not supported by the government or police departments. This time period was known as ”the Great Terror.” Florence and her family, in an effort to escape, joined the Great Migration and moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1927.

            In Chicago, unfortunately, Price experienced difficult times in her marriage with her husband, Thomas J. Price. After the family went through financial problems, Thomas became abusive, and his aggressive nature caused Florence to file for divorce. Leaving Thomas meant Florence became a single mother with a son and two daughters. While continuing her studies in music and the arts, Florence published four pieces for concert piano. Under a fake name, she did work for silent films and created catchy melodies for radio advertisements. At this time in her life, Florence Price became good friends with other talented musicians and artists such as Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson. Florence Price had huge success with her music, winning competitions and having major ensembles choose to perform her work. She became a sensation after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered one of her compositions, resulting in her being labeled the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. “Much of Price’s work contained rhythms and melodies from African-American folk songs and spirituals, and she was endlessly creative in her style, combining these tunes with the Western classical music tradition she had trained in.” (Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra)

Florence’s musical sound was a perfect fusion of European classical tradition and African American spirituals and folk tunes. Deeply religious, her music included influences from African-American church services along with influences from European Romantic composers such as Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. Her music reached hundreds of thousands of people across America and was performed at one of the most important historical moments in American history. Contralto Marian Anderson was set to perform Florence Price’s “My Soul’s Been Anchored in de Lord” in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday, 1939. “Washington D.C. was a segregated city at the time and the rules of the hall said that only white performers could appear there. The audience in the hall would also be segregated.” (classic fm) After news of this, Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, supported the concert and helped see out its performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When the concert was broadcasted on radio stations across the globe, Florence Price became a beloved and recognized classical composer and hero in the African American community. Unfortunately, like many of our unsung heroes, Price died in a less than perfect situation and her manuscripts were lost and abandoned for many years. With a new generation and the rise of African American and women composers, Price’s name is slowly but steadily emerging into her place among the celebrated.

An artist must be free

to choose what he does, certainly,

but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

Langston Hughes

            Everett Astor Lee was born on August 31, 1916 in Wheeling, West Virginia and was a young violin prodigy. Along with every person highlighted in this essay, Maestro Lee holds a number of accolades that challenged the racist society in which he lived. Lee became the first African American to conduct a Broadway musical and the first African American to establish a Symphony orchestra in the South, and he was also the first African American person to conduct a show for a major American opera company. The list of accolades goes on and on and this story is one of my favorites. Still alive at the age of 104 years, Maestro Lee has recently received an honorary doctorate from the West Virginia University – Initiated by WVU’s associate professor of Musicology, Dr. Travis Stimeling. Through this connection, I was able to speak to Lee’s daughter, Doctor Eve Lee, assistant Professor of German Studies at USC, and set up a future time to meet Maestro Lee and connect more with him and his story. Maestro Lee’s daughter, Dr. Eve directed me to the Wheeling Hall of Fame and the WVU library for more resources on Maestro Everett’s life.

Everett Astor Lee’s father was a local barber in Wheeling, West Virginia, working at many barber shops during his late teens and early 20s. Once Everett and his younger brother, Kenneth, were older, the family moved to Cleveland in 1927, searching for better job opportunities. In Cleveland, Maestro Lee continued his violin education while attending Fairmont Junior High School, where he became really good friends with Jesse Owens, with whom he often ran track. After his high school graduation, Lee pursued a violin performance degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he worked hard to financially support his musical career. Having many jobs on the side, including working at a hotel as a busboy, Maestro Lee took a bit longer than the average 4 years to get his degree from CIM, but it is important to note that the delay in getting a violin degree did not affect his musical career. In fact, the hotel that he serviced was the avenue that led him to Arthur Rodzinski, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. He had gotten word that teenager Everett Lee was a very talented composer and the Cleveland Orchestra Director became intrigued and wanted to know more. Maestro Rodzinski invited him to see the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra perform every Saturday and at this moment in history Rodzinski became a key hero and inspiration for Maestro Everett Lee. “My early conducting aspirations were nurtured by him… Rodzinski helped me in many ways—he would go over scores with me and give me pointers.” (archiving Wheeling)

Somebody told [Rodzinski] that this kid is a very promising musician,

and he just asked me ‘who are you?’” Everett recalled in an interview

with the American Music Review in 2013.

“And I told him, and he said, ‘well, come to my concerts.’

Everett Lee III (archiving wheeling)

            After graduating from CIM, Lee enlisted in the military for a short period before moving back to Cleveland and striking gold within his career. Maestro Lee received a call from one of the biggest Broadway producers at the time to come to New York to be the concertmaster of Bizet’s Carmen Jones on Broadway. Lee accepted the offer and moved to New York, where he met his wife, another incredibly successful black classical musician. Sylvia Olden Lee “was a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, instructor at the Curtis Institute, Howard, Oberlin, Columbia, and Dillard Universities, also a Fulbright Scholar, and the first African American musician to work at the New York Metropolitan Opera.” (archive wheeling) And through the joining of this power couple and also Maestro Lee’s legacy with Carmen on Broadway, Leonard Bernstein offered Lee the concertmaster position and the conducting position for the performances of “On the Town” in 1944. From this strong connection made with Leonard Bernstein, Maestro Everett Lee became the first African American conductor to reach major classical stages. Although his success was huge and his network was powerful, leading him to conduct for ensembles like the New York Philharmonic, racial limitations stopped Lee from having the same opportunities and successes of his colleagues like Leonard Bernstein. To fight this, Maestro Lee created his own orchestra, made up of musicians from different ethnicities, genders and races. The orchestra was called “The Cosmopolitan Symphony Society,” and Lee took on many side hustles to ensure the financial protection of this new and revolutionary ensemble.

In a 2013 interview with The American Music Review, Maestro Lee admitted the struggles of creating a career in the United States. In response, he and his wife packed up and pursued life in Rome, both as Fulbright scholars. Europe became a perfect next step for Maestro Lee and his wife, and after a series of trips back and forth to America, the Lee family ultimately moved to Europe, finding more success and opportunity there.

Among the ensembles Maestro Lee conducted are The Berlin Philharmonic, Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the Madrid Philharmonic, the Bogota Philharmonic Orchestra, and many many more across Europe, North America and South America. Maestro Everett Astor Lee took a position in Sweden as the appointed conductor of the Norrköping Symphony, and although Lee traveled back and forth to America and Europe, Malmö, Sweden ultimately became his final home where he currently lives at this time. His last conducting performance is very special to highlight as the performance was with the Louisville Orchestra, one of the first important performances of his career that made him the first African American to conduct a professional Southern orchestra. As a southerner sharing the same last name, I have come to truly appreciate Maestro Lee’s story and contribution. Dare I say he was Leonard Bernstein’s inspiration? Truly the inspiration for many people, and it is so special that he is still alive and with us. I am so grateful to attend a school that has given this amazing musician an honorary doctorate and is an establishment that is dedicated in uplifting important voices that have been silenced by the racial war in America. There is so much to learn from just hearing the courageous stories of black musicians such as Maestro Everett Astor Lee, Florence Beatrice Smith-Price, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

When asked about his dad’s reaction to being told people from Wheeling were inquiring about him, Lee’s son responded, “He couldn’t believe it. He’s been getting calls from the embassies in Europe congratulating him on getting to be a 100. And then I get an email from Wheeling, West Virginia. Amazing.”

Everett Lee III (archiving wheeling)

Bibliography

1. A Conversation About Growing Up Black | Op-Docs | The New York Times. YouTube.                  

YouTube, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSAw51caEeg.

2. “Aspen Music Festival And School.” Florence B. Price: A Biographical Vignette | Aspen Music Festival And School.

3. Biography of Joseph Bologne De Saint-Georges.Artaria Editions.

4. Brian Greer. “Little Rock’s Last Lynching Was in 1927, but the Terrible Memorie Linger.” Arkansas Times, April 27, 2019.

5. Davis, Lizzie. “The Inspirational Life of Composer Florence Price – and Why Her                        

 Story Still Matters Today.” Classic FM, October 21, 2020.

6. Édit du Roi, Touchant la Police des Isles de l’Amérique Française (Paris, 1687), 28–58.

7. History.com Editors. “Jim Crow Laws.” History.com. A&E Television Networks,                  

February 28, 2018.

8. Jacob, Louis. “Saint-Georges Et La ‘Légion Noire’ De Lille en 1793.” Revue du Nord 33, no. 129 (1951): 6–17.

9. Jones, Brian. “Growing up Black in America: Here’s My Story of Everyday Racism.”                    

The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 6, 2018.

10. “Joseph Bologne Chevalier De Saint-Georges.” Wise Music                                  

Classical.

11. “Langston Hughes Quotes.” BrainyQuote. Xplore.

12. Le Code noir (1685) [2]

13. Le code noir ou Edit du roy (in French). Paris: Chez Claude Girard, dans la Grand’Salle, vis-à-vis la Grande’Chambre. 1735.

14. Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra. “Florence Price.” Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, October 23, 2020.

15. “Slavery”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 November 2011.

16. The “Code Noir” (1685) (in English), trans. John Garrigus

17. “The Man Who Got under Mozart’s Skin.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, February 16, 2016.

18. Tyler Stovall, “Race and the Making of the Nation: Blacks in Modern France.” In Michael A. Gomez, ed. Diasporic Africa: A Reader. New York: New York University Press. 2006.

19. “Slavery”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 29 November 2011.

20. “What Is Musicology?” The British Academy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.