Updated: Dec 30, 2022
Making a way for Black classical artists in Jim Crow America
The photo was taken in Fall 1934. The party celebrating a woman who doesn’t figure as largely in narratives of pre-WWII Chicago history as she should: Maude Roberts George (front row, third from right). She served as the president of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and led NANM’s most prominent branch, the Chicago Music Association (CMA).
One seat away from her is composer Florence Price (front row, fifth from right). By the time this photo was taken, her Symphony in E minor (1931) had debuted with the Chicago Symphony (underwritten by George); she had premiered and performed her Concerto in One Movement (1934) in Chicago and Pittsburgh, respectively; and she was in the 14th year of her NANM membership.
Because sometime between 1917 and 1924, Price was denied membership to the Arkansas Music Teachers Association (AMTA). Not because she wasn’t qualified: she was a New England Conservatory alum; a seasoned teacher; and former head of the music department of Clark University at Atlanta.
But the AMTA didn’t admit Black teachers.
So Price kept looking. In 1920, she is registered as a member of NANM. In 1924, a “Mrs. T. J. Price” is mentioned in NANM meeting minutes, co-head of a Little Rock music org that wants to become a NANM branch (Price’s husband was attorney Thomas J. Price). When she moved to Chicago in 1927, Price joined both of NANM’s Chicago branches: the CMA and the younger R. Nathaniel Dett Club, a decision that was professionally strategic, necessary, and fruitful.
Price’s search for and the community she found in NANM was part of self-determinist practices that blossomed in the early 20th century. In the United States specifically, as segregation replaced enslavement as the scaffold for racial inequality, Black Americans established their own schools, stores, banks, and towns; places where the threat of racist treatment and assault could be minimized and folks could focus on living instead of surviving. Or for members of NANM: performing, composing, teaching, and growing their creative muscles.
Which would be impossible without a structured, consistent community, as outlined by NANM’s earliest leaders, Nora Holt and Henry L. Grant. As Holt wrote in her column for The Chicago Defender:
“Two or more societies for the same purpose is perilous to the progress of each body, and the Race being limited as to finished artists, cannot survive a division…unity will mean success, otherwise it is the old story of rivalry and failure.”1
And a few years later, Grant drove the importance of community home in his contribution to the NANM Organ (journal) in 1921:
“Individualism would fail us…Your individualism is worthy to be emulated where it stands for study and labor to express talent and individuality; but relatively impotent where it ignores the force and impetus given the profession at large by intelligent cooperation.”2
The importance of community makes NANM’s headquarters in Chicago–Black Chicago–make even more sense. Because whether you called it the Black Belt, the Black Metropolis, or Bronzeville, the area of downtown Chicago between 22nd and 57th streets was a city within a city, home to one of the largest communities of Black folks in the first half of the 20th century; a place where Price could perform or hear her works performed at the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Ave; meet new and established artists in the salon of fellow NANM member Estella Bonds; and flex and expand her compositional skills.
But her administrative chops weren’t pushed to the side; she served on the CMA board and co-organized musical events with her student and colleague, pianist-composer Margaret Bonds. Each meeting opened with the Black National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” followed by the necessary business of the day. During their July 21, 1936 meeting, CMA member Shelby Nichols was called to speak on:
“Mrs. Florence B. Price’s career and musical achievements, which we said, merited a proper recognition by some accredited institution in the form of a degree being bestowed upon her. All present concurred in the sentiment as expressed, yet some differed in the ways and means of attaining the desired end. However, after a brief discussion, a motion by Mr. Nichols seconded by Miss Inniss f[?????], that a letter of commendation of Mrs. Price’s work in the Musical [sic] world, issue from the Chicago Music Ass’m., to the New England Conservatory of Music, that it might be reminded of this talented woman’s worth.”3
While it is currently unknown if such a letter was sent off, this passage shows how members were keen on the positive impact such public, institutional support could have on Price’s career.
NANM also provided creative support and validation of her aesthetic voice. With a style built upon African American and western classical forms, processes, and idioms, Price expressed the New Negro modernist ideals of the organization: use the “old” (e.g. Negro spirituals and juba dance) and the “new” (e.g. classical music) to create a Black art music, an expression of modern, Black life.
Creatively, stylistically, ideologically, Price never lacked access to new ideas; people to test them on; or neighbors and friends like Bonds to help literally put pen to paper:
“Mother [Estella Bonds] took her [Price] into our house…We had…a tremendous kitchen…Florence and I would sit in that kitchen, and I was trying to help her with her extractions of orchestration parts…When Florence had something that she had to do, every black musician in Chicago who could write was either scratching mistakes, or copying, or extracting, or doing something to get Florence’s work done.”4
Following her 1931 divorce, Price was a single mother performing, composing, teaching, and networking; she could not always create in a sphere of quiet focus. She needed friends, colleagues–a village–to continue the work when a gig, a sick child, or her own bad health called her away.
Florence Price’s composing career would have been very different without the opportunities and support provided by NANM. And hers is just one of thousands of stories that show the artistic, communal, and ideological impact of this organization.
1 Doris McGinty, A Documentary History of the National Association of Negro Musicians (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 63
2 Henry L. Grant, “NANM Official Organ,” NANM Series III 2, Folder 59, Center for Black Music Research, College Archives and Special Collections, Columbia College Chicago
3 Chicago Music Association Record Book, Center for Black Music Research, College Archives and Special Collections, Columbia College Chicago
4 Helen Walker-Hill, From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 147
Rae Linda Brown, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021)
Lucy Caplan, “Strange What Cosmopolites Music Makes Us: Classical Music, the Black Press, and Nora Holt’s Feminist Audiotopia,” Journal of the Society for American Music (2020)
Samantha Ege, “Composing a Symphonist: Florence Price and the Hand of Black Women’s Fellowship,” Women & Music (2020)
E. Azalia Hackley Collection, Detroit Public Library Digital Collections
Florence Price Addendum Papers, Special Collections Library, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville
Carl Van Vechten Papers Relating to African American Arts and Letters, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.