previous sub-section
Seven— "As Large As She Can Make It": The Role of Black Women Activists in Music, 1880–1945
next sub-section

The Community Leader

Women musicians assumed roles of leadership on several different levels: as performers in various settings (e.g., churches, schools, civic organizations, social groups, etc.), founders and directors of ensembles, and organizers of clubs. In Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, for example, women made outstanding contributions to the heritage and life of a large black population.[10]


The Church Setting

By 1900, black Washingtonians were able to look back upon a fifty-year history of interest in classical music, a tradition in which there was considerable opportunity for women to participate.[11] As centers of social as well as religious activity, the churches were the main support of concert life. Churches furnished concert auditoriums, and it was through various church clubs and committees that tickets were sold and arrangements made for musical programs. Staples of the concert season were regular choir concerts and recitals featuring local musicians and visiting artists of national stature.

Choir concerts were most popular in the Washington black community's musical season, and the choirs of the largest and oldest churches achieved national reputations. Organists, choir directors, and a few outstanding accompanists assumed leadership positions, most of which, until after World War II, were held by men. Few of these musical leaders, though, were more visible in early-twentieth-century black Washington than Mary L. Europe (1884–1947), who by 1909 was organist and choir director at the influential Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church, which presented its share of concerts and recitals, including those of its highly trained choir.

Community Organizations

Mary Europe's activity in the community was diversified. Called a "musicians's musician" by her admirers, she performed solo piano recitals and often accompanied local and visiting artists.[12] As the accompanist for the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, she occupied a position of special prominence, resulting from the organization's renown. When the well-known Afro-British violinist, conductor, and composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), son of a Sierra Leonean father and an English mother,[13] came from London in 1904 to conduct the society in his cantata Hiawatha's Wedding Feast , he publicly recognized Europe's fine musicianship, with the result that her reputation was considerably enhanced in Washington music circles.

Founded in 1901, the Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society had 160 to 200 voices and was, justly, a source of great pride in Washington, D.C. The idea for its creation came from Mamie Hilyer, founder of the Treble Clef Club (discussed below), although—as was often the case—her husband, Andrew F. Hilyer, a leading businessman and treasurer of the organization, and the conductor, John Turner Layton, were more prominently associated with the society in the public mind.

Mamie Hilyer had met Coleridge-Taylor during a trip abroad and had returned to the United States enthusiastic about establishing a choral group that would perform his compositions. She and her associates conceived the plan to invite Coleridge-Taylor to Washington to conduct the society; her husband carried on the main correspondence. Mamie Hilyer promoted the society through her performances as a pianist and other fund-raising efforts. Concerts of the choral society were enthusiastically reviewed by the local and national black newspapers,


and the audiences, made up of whites as well as blacks, were so large that some persons were turned away for lack of seating. A writer for the Evening Star (24 April 1903, 13) described the society's first concert as "splendid" and "an event of interest in the musical history of this city."

Ensembles and Clubs

In the first decades of the twentieth century, except for a few popular dance ensembles, orchestras and bands in Washington's black community generally did not include women players.[14] In keeping with the movement spreading over the United States, Washington women, in a few instances, developed their own ensembles. Such a group was the Corda Club, a thirty-piece women's string ensemble of mandolins and bowed strings, which presented concerts under the direction of Gregoria Frazier Goins (1883–1964) in the decade from 1910 to 1920.[15]

Another important group that offered leadership in the community by presenting annual concerts and encouraging young musicians was the Treble Clef Club, founded in 1897. Made up of professional women musicians and music teachers interested in the study of music for their own development, this group brought the "best music"—with special emphasis on that of black composers—to the community. The local respect and national regard for this women's organization were indicative, at least in part, of the effectiveness of its leadership.[16]

The Treble Clef Club was probably an outgrowth of the black women's club movement, which was solidified with the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. The motto of the NACW, "Lifting as We Climb," was important to black women. The implied commitment to social welfare programs and self-development became the raison d'être for the establishment not only of clubs but also of educational institutions in the early twentieth century.

previous sub-section
Seven— "As Large As She Can Make It": The Role of Black Women Activists in Music, 1880–1945
next sub-section