Harriett Gibbs Marshall and the Washington Conservatory

harriet_gibbs_marshall__public_domain_Schmalenberger, Sarah Carr Liggett. “The Washington Conservatory of Music and African-American Musical Experience, 1903–1941.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2004.

In 1903, Harriett Gibbs Marshall, the first African American woman graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, opened the Washington Conservatory of Music in the nation’s capital. This was the first private conservatory owned and operated exclusively by African Americans. As the oldest and longest-running American institution to have advocated the study and performance of African American music, it helped African Americans construct and manage their own careers in music. Most of the instructors at the Washington Conservatory were female graduates of leading music schools, and the majority of the students were women. Concert programs and other materials from the Washington Conservatory of Music, now housed at Howard University and Oberlin College, reveal much about Marshall’s attitude toward this tradition. Although she cultivated the Western European “canonical” repertoire, she also developed a course of study that transcended it, offering a course on “Negro Music History” and using African American vernacular folk music, including spirituals, to teach harmony. Despite the efforts of many to preserve spirituals, there was an aesthetic divide at Washington Conservatory that caused conflicts within the academic and professional musical communities. Not all African Americans enjoyed singing or hearing spirituals. Marshall’s career illustrates the contributions that African American women have made in shaping musical practice in the United States through their work as teachers and administrators. (Author’s abstract, abridged)