"Music Motivated Eva Jessye as a Child in Kansas"

A Moment in Time

Kansas Historical Society

February 1997

A monthly series from the Kansas Historical Society

A Baptist church choir serenaded Eva Jessye with "hallelujahs" as she entered the world, setting the tone for her life's work. The Coffeyville native, born in 1895, soon set a goal to preserve the tradition of African American music for future generations.

As a small child, Jessye slumbered as her Aunt Harriet sang spirituals. During the pre-teen years she organized a girl's quartet, the first of many singing ensembles she established and directed. She believed that the "Negro" spirituals of her ancestors were a distinct type of music unique to the African American heritage. Jessye saw a similar rhythm in spoken word, and began writing poetry at an early age.

Following studies at Western University in Quindaro (present Kansas City, Kansas) and Langston University in Oklahoma, Jessye became a teacher in several segregated Oklahoma classrooms. In 1922 she went to New York to work for an African American newspaper. Music motived her, and she continued to organize and direct singing groups. Spirituals remained the basis of her musical undertakings.

While jazz offered one voice for African Americans, Jessye used another form to express her cultural heritage. The tradition of spirituals is believed to have arisen as a distinctly African American response to the specific needs and goals of the culture. Jessye saw the opportunity to preserve this music by arranging and recording them in concert tradition. Her collection of traditional songs, My Spirituals, was published in the late 1920s. Jessye believed African Americans should have the choice to experience the creative sounds of the many talented jazz musicians and, at the same time, be encouraged to retain their ethnic musical roots.

In 1935 Jessye became the chorus trainer for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, the first true American opera. Later, the Eva Jessye Choir toured internationally giving concerts in war-torn Europe. Jessye walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 during his civil rights march; her group was the official choir for the event.

Jessye traveled the world sharing her Kansas roots through music and the rhythm of her poetry. She returned to Kansas late in life and continued to produce works of music and poetry well into her nineties. Eva Jessye, the "grand dame of Black music in America," died in 1992 though her spirit lives on through the music and poetry she created.

Kansas has been home to many notable African American women. Nora Holt, born in 1885 in Kansas, was the first African American to earn a master's degree in music. She received the degree in 1918 from the Chicago Musical College. Hattie McDaniel, born in Wichita in 1898, was the first African American to win an Academy Award. In 1940 she was also the first African American allowed to attend the awards ceremony when she accepted her Oscar for Gone With the Wind. The first female African American lawyer in the United States was Lutie Lytle, born in 1874 in Topeka. She received her law degree in 1897 from the Tennessee Law School.

© Kansas Historical Society, 1997

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